How your sleep cycle changes with age

Early waking, fatigue, and drowsiness are common as you age. (rawpixel.com pic)

Your sleep cycle, like most body functions, goes through phases and changes throughout your life.

As you age, the quality and length of your sleep cycle decreases. Early waking, fatigue, and drowsiness are common complaints.

Adults need just as much sleep when they are 65 as they did at 25. So how does your sleep cycle change? We have some answers and hope. Despite changes, there are ways to improve your sleep one day at a time.

Less REM sleep

You may be unconscious, but your brain and body are hard at work while you sleep. In a typical night, you pass in and out of five sleep stages.

Stages I and II are the lightest stages, wherein you are easily awakened. Stages III and IV are part of the deep sleep stages. Here, brain waves slow and change their patterns. Finally, there’s rapid eye movement sleep (REM), which is the active dream phase of sleep.

With time, your body tends to spend less time in the regenerative phases of sleep, particularly REM sleep. That can leave you feeling tired even if you have spent seven or eight hours asleep.

Delayed sleep latency

Sleep latency refers to how long it takes you to fall asleep. Older people often experience a delay in falling asleep. Scientists haven’t determined why that is exactly, but they have some theories. One includes poor eyesight.

As your eyes dim with age, the amount of light that enters the eye also diminishes. Light, in particular natural light, heavily influences the timing of your sleep cycle.

Special photoreceptors in the eye absorb blue light, the kind of light that comes through the atmosphere from the sun.

It then sends signals directly to the part of the brain that controls your sleep cycle. If not enough light makes its way to this part of the brain, the timing of your sleep cycle can go off. Consequently, you may feel tired during the day but wide awake at night.

Restlessness and waking

Another issue that older adults face is restlessness and frequent waking. The nature of your sleep cycle doesn’t change but how your body navigates through it can. As you age, the transitions between sleep stages tend to be more abrupt.

You may slip into stage I sleep much faster than you used to. It can happen so quickly that it startles you awake.

It may feel like you’re waking up more often during the night because of the quick transition. In reality, you’re transitioning through sleep stages at the same rate, but you’re noticing it more.

Sleep deprivation affects all aspects of your life. (rawpixel.com pic)

Sleep disorders and medications

Age also comes with more sleep disorders. Sleep apnea is more common with age too. The relaxation of the soft palate muscles or excess weight can play a factor.

With this disorder, you can spend a full night in bed but wake up exhausted because your body gets awakened before you can spend enough time in all of the sleep stages. You’re literally waking yourself up all night long.

Age also comes with increasing medical problems that are unrelated to sleep. The treatment of other conditions may require medications that interfere with the sleep cycle.

How to get more sleep

You can get better sleep by following these healthy sleep guidelines:

• Keep a regular bedtime: Your body adjusts the timing of your sleep cycle to follow your schedule. Consistency helps your brain respond appropriately.

• Follow a bedtime routine: A routine works with your bedtime to train your brain when to start the sleep cycle. It also gives you a chance to reduce stress.

Try to perform each activity in the same order and start them at the same time every day. You might also try meditation as part of the routine, to reduce stress and help your body stay in deeper stages of sleep.

• Get regular exercise: Exercise is good for the brain and body. It will wear you out so you’re more tired.

However, it also improves your circulation, strengthens your mind, and tones the muscles. It doesn’t need to be strenuous to be helpful.

• Sleep on the right mattress: Comfort matters more as you age because chronic pain can be an issue. Make sure your mattress works for your weight and preferred sleep position. The right mattress may even be able to alleviate some of your aches and pains.

Older adults may also want to try bright light therapy. If your eyesight is going, this therapy can help stabilise your sleep cycle. All it takes is time underneath a special light bulb to increase the amount of light that reaches your brain.

You absolutely need sleep as you age. Though it may be more of a challenge to get that full seven to nine hours, there are ways to sleep deeper and longer.

Little changes like a regular bedtime may make all the difference. Remember, when sleep is a priority, your body has time for the healing and rejuvenation it needs.

Tuck Sleep is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources.