Changes in sleep patterns can occur with normal aging. The number of hours of sleep needed remains the same. However, many older individuals experience insomnia, which is the inability to fall asleep and stay asleep for a normal length of time.
There are several changes in sleeping habits that are commonly seen as people age, including: a decreased amount of "deep" sleep and an increased amount of "light" sleephaving a harder time falling asleepless time spent dreamingmore frequent napping during the daya sense of frustration with sleep pattern changesspending more time in bed but possibly sleeping lesswaking up more easily and more often during the night
Research suggests that certain factors within the body and the environment might make it difficult to fall asleep. As a person ages, he or she secretes smaller amounts of certain substances related to the sleep/wake cycle. These include growth hormone and melatonin, a chemical that promotes sleep. Many older people may also experience some or all of these changes: changes in the foods eaten and the way they are digesteddecreased ability to regulate body temperaturedecreased exposure to sunlightdecreased mental stimulationa more sedentary lifestyle
Other factors that may contribute to sleep difficulties include: drinking alcoholdrinking or eating caffeinesmoking or using nicotine products to quit smokingtaking certain medicines, including some used for high blood pressure or depressiontraveling, or having jet lag
Other factors can also interfere with sleep but are not considered a part of normal aging. Many older people need to get up and use the bathroom during the night because of medical conditions. Men with benign prostatic hyperplasia, or an enlarged prostate, and people with diabetes may need to urinate at night. A variety of chronic diseases and conditions may cause anxiety, pain, or other problems that lead to insomnia.
Ways to help get a better night's sleep include: avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and illegal drugsavoiding daytime naps or taking no more than one nap per day, which should be less than 1 hour longbeing in sunlight for a short period each dayexercising dailynot going to bed unless tiredusing the bed only for sleeping and sexwaking up at a similar time each day
If a person is still having sleep problems after trying these steps, he or she should talk to a healthcare professional. Prescription sleep medicines, such as zolpidem (i.e., Ambien) and zaleplon (i.e., Sonata), may be helpful. These medicines are designed to be used for a very short period of time. If used for more than 1 or 2 weeks, some of these medicines can cause addiction and worsening sleep problems. These medicines may also have dangerous side effects such as confusion, hallucinations, and an increased chance of falls.
Too little sleep can cause confusion, trouble concentrating, decreased energy, and other mental changes. Sleeplessness at night can result in sleepiness during the day, leading to inattention in classes and work, or even falling asleep while driving a car, and causing a crash. Pain associated with illness may appear to be worse when a person is tired. These problems can be treated, and symptoms will often go away when the person gets enough sleep.