The Older You Are, The Worse You Sleep

sleepless night illustration

As you may painfully know: Sleep gets more difficult the older you get. The problem gets so bad that by our 80s, the lack of sleep can have major health ramifications, though we don’t always notice.

Older adults face a number of challenges. The first is a reduction in the quantity and quality of deep sleep- the stage that beneficially overhauls your cardiovascular, immune, and metabolic systems and refreshes learning and memory abilities. As you enter your 20s and 40s your deep-sleep brain waves become smaller, less powerful and fewer in number. Reductions in deep-sleep quality increase your risk of heart attacks, obesity, and stroke, as well as the buildup of a toxic brain protein called beta amyloid- that is linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

The second hallmark of altered sleep, as we age is fragmentation. The older we get, the more frequently we wake up throughout the night. Causes include body pain and a weakened bladder.

Because of sleep fragmentation, older people will suffer a reduction in sleep efficiency, defined as the percent of time you were asleep while in bed. Inefficient sleep is no small thing. The lower an older individuals sleep-efficiency score, the higher their mortality risk, the worse their physical health and the lower their cognitive function typified by forgetfulness. The third sleep change with advanced age is that of circadian timing- the bodies internal clock that times our sleep- wake rhythms. Seniors commonly experience a regression in circadian timing, leading to earlier bedtimes. Changes in circadian timing with advancing age may appear harmless, but they can be the cause of numerous sleeping (and waking) problems in the elderly. Older adults often want to stay awake later into the evening, but find themselves inadvertently falling asleep. Accidental evening snoozes release otherwise healthy sleep pressure that builds in the daytime. Irrespective of how old you are, those unplanned naps will make it harder to sleep at night.

A compounding problem arrives in the morning. In many elderly individuals, their circadian rhythm will start to rise around 4 or 5 am, even if they had trouble falling asleep the night before. A self-perpetuating cycle ensues wherein many seniors are battling a sleep debt.

Many seniors progress through their later years not realizing how much their sleep has degraded. This means that elderly individuals fail to connect their deterioration in health with their deterioration in sleep. Not all medical problems of aging are attributable to poor sleep. But far more of our physical and mental health aliments are related to sleep impairment than either we, or many doctors, truly realize or treat seriously.

Adapted from an article in Wall Street Journal by Dr. Matthew Walker from his book “Why We Sleep”.

Dr. Galante is a graduate from the Tufts University – Dental Sleep Medicine Mini Residency program. He is recognized by the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine as a qualified dentist which signifies over 15 hours of graduate study in the field of Dental Sleep Medicine. Our office can screen and in many cases, treat snoring, obstructive sleep apnea, Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome, and other sleep related maladies. If you are interested in pursuing the third pillar of health, good, restful sleep, besides exercise and diet, please give our office a call to set up a free 20-minute consultation appointmen