Why Quality Sleep Grows More Elusive with Age

By Mark Barna | May 1, 2017 10:12 am

(Olga Kuevda/Shutterstock)

Middle-agers and seniors on average sleep less than younger people, about 6 to 7 hours a night compared to 8 to 9 hours.

But why is this so? And are older people therefore sleep deprived, which can give rise to chronic maladies and speed up aging?

There are two camps on this. One is that older people sleep less because their body requires less sleep. No harm, no foul here. The other is that the hours spent sleeping isn’t the relevant question; what matters is the quality of sleep. And according to a recently published review called “Sleep and Human Aging,” by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, many older people have unhealthful sleep due to age-related physiological changes. These changes can begin as early as the 30s.

A vicious cycle emerges, the researchers say: The older we get, the more our ability for restorative sleep erodes, which speeds up the aging process.

Sleepless Nights

Sleep deprivation places people at risk for all sorts of maladies, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and depression. It weakens the immune system and impairs cognitive function.

It is generally accepted that people in middle age and beyond sleep about 1 hour less due to biological changes (not because they are super busy). The 1-hour sleep loss is considered natural and not unhealthy, says Judith E. Carroll, a psychiatrist who researches neuroscience and human behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles.

However, restorative sleep tends to decline with age. “The important point is that the overall need for quality sleep — deep sleep — is thought to remain, even though it is increasingly hard to get as the body ages,” Carroll says.

People spend less time in deep non-REM slumber, also called Delta sleep, which is a time for memory consolidation and the brain’s clearing of protein waste (including amyloid beta, linked to Alzheimer’s disease). Delta sleep restores people mentally and physiologically.

In their review of the sleep literature, which appeared in April in the neuroscience journal Neuron, the Berkeley researchers lay out how sleep habits change during life.

It begins in the 30s, mostly for men. Delta sleep declines by 50 percent in some men when compared to sleep in their 20s, according to EEGs, or electroencephalography tests. For women, the decline is less but still up to 25 percent. Meanwhile, neurochemicals that switch us from sleep to wakefulness are drying up. This contributes to grogginess during the day and a maddening alertness at night.


(Olga Kuevda/Shutterstock)

Many middle-agers and about half of seniors complain of having trouble falling asleep and waking up repeatedly during the night, sometimes staying up for hours. Though men bear the early brunt of sleep changes, women catch up. Women postmenopause complain of sleep disturbance more often than men of similar age, the researchers say.

Lack of nighttime sleep ushers in daytime drowsiness. Ten percent of people age 55 to 64 take naps during the day, and that increases to 25 percent for people age 75 to 84, according to a 2007 study.

Sleepiness Unawares

You might say to yourself, “I am middle-age and wake up often at night, but I don’t feel tired during the day. Am I still sleep deprived?”

You might be. The Berkeley researchers argue that the body can grow accustomed to sleep loss and mask the symptoms. Also, the chemicals that normally flag sleepiness are in low supply in older people, a study shows.

“The older adult brain appears to be sleep deprived, but it has fewer active receptors to sense that,” says Bryce Mander, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley and lead author of the sleep review. “It might be that there is a sleep need, and it’s building and it’s chronic, but the brain is somehow less sensitive to it.”

Joseph Winer, a Berkeley grad student in cognitive neuroscience and a researcher for the sleep review, compares this lack of physiological self-awareness to people with cataracts who don’t notice the subtle decline in their vision. “Getting less sleep is having a functional impact, but it is changing so slowly, people don’t realize it,” he says.

Carroll, who was not involved in the sleep review, asked middle agers to compare themselves to how they felt at age 25. “Do you need more coffee in the morning?” she asks. “Do you feel more tired in the afternoon? Has your overall energy level changed from when you were younger?” If so, this might be a sign of sleep deprivation.

Even if unfelt, the cognitive impairments from lack of sleep are measurable. The UC Berkeley scientists point to studies showing that rested, older people perform worse than younger people on cognitive tests, and age cannot wholly account for the discrepancy. The older people end up performing on the tests about as well as sleep-deprived young people.

Youthful Sleep

What can be done? Given that the condition might be biological, perhaps not much until science comes to the rescue.

Sleeping pills used to be viewed as the answer to sleep problems, but today they are considered sedatives and of limited use. Though the pills can effect deep stages of non-REM sleep, the EEG waves they generate are different from those generated in Delta sleep.



A healthy lifestyle of a balanced diet, regular exercise and ability to manage stress can help. There are also sleep hygiene practices available on the internet.

Here are a few from the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Avoid daytime naps or limit them to 30 minutes.
  • Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime.
  • Stay away from food that can be disruptive right before sleep, such as rich foods, fatty or fried meals, spicy dishes, citrus fruits and carbonated drinks.
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light during the day, which helps maintain a sleep-wake cycle.
  • Establish a relaxing, regular bedtime routine.

Of course, people have tried these tips and not gotten positive results. For them, behavioral therapy might be the answer. This entails regular visits to a clinician, who will assess sleep habits, review a sleeper’s diary and offer counsel on behaviors.

But don’t expect a sleeper’s fountain of youth.

“What we can’t say is that these behaviors will make your sleep like it was when you were younger,” Bryce says.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health

    As soon as I saw the test was run by Berkeley I knew it was BS. These people can not see the nose on their faces and only do what they are told to do by their administration. You cannot trust anything coming out of that clown school.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Night is dark so you can imagine your fears without distraction.

    • Erik Bosma

      You got it so right (as usual), Al, with the fear thing. And they compound over the years. And there’s really not a lot you can do about them except realize the foolishness behind selecting what it is you want to ruin the rest of your life fearing. Plus they never go away, do they. They’re just like the monsters under your bed. Kids have it SO right. Read a few good kids’ books, like Roald Dahl’s, or fables and they’ll hopefully put you on the right track. (Isn’t this where the Bible thumpers come in?) Thanks again for the Insights of Uncle Al (sounds like a good book right there).

      • http://secure93.com Erik Gibson

        I resign working hard at shopritte and after that at present I’m making $75-97$ every hour. How? I am only working on the internet! My occupation did not make me joyful and so I decided to take the opportunity on something new…after 4 years it wasn’t easy to drop out my day work but now I couldn’t be more delighted.>>> SHRTY.LINK/sWPGJq

  • Alan Hubbard

    I irritate the heck out of my wife by falling asleep in about 15 seconds once the light is turned off. She gets her revenge when I wake up at 3 am to go to the can and am awake for an hour or two listening to her saw logs on the other side of the bed.

  • aka darrell

    At age 79 a CPAP breathing machine seems to be helping me even though the indicators for need were borderline.

  • No Such Agency Knows

    When seen – fears disappear.
    Old people sleep less because they fear more?

  • Brian McInnis

    Neither day nor night have any relevance here; only sleep and wakefulness.

  • Brian McInnis

    O.K., change ‘thirties’ to ‘twenties’, and this will be accurate for men.

  • Erik Bosma

    As I age I do less, physically, mentally everything, and so do most others. So I began drinking and doing sleepy-time drugs very occasionally. Yep, slept like a log again. Felt like a crappy log when I got up and didn’t really have the energy anymore but what the heck, I was ‘sleeping’ again. Started needed a bit more ‘stuff’ to get to sleep and began to go out for a ‘few’ on Thursday nights, which soon became any nights which occasionally slept overnight with the sleepy-times. One night after drinking from right after work until I got sent home from the bar, I went to bed and fell asleep immediately again but only for two or three
    hours. Woke up sweating, anxious, freaking out, and absolutely NOT being able to go back too sleep. Finally discovered that (stupid me) all I needed was a triple scotch or a handful of benzos and I was back to sleep again. Began calling in sick a lot more. Found out finally after speaking to some other people who looked like me in the morning that I WAS sick. Now I take no chemicals except carbs, protein, vitamins, junk like that and I work out about 1 to 2 hours a day. Although I asked the doc to kill me for the first 3 or 4 months I again sleep like a baby, wake up only needing a small coffee and a bit of breakfast, and everything works well again. Sometimes II just can’t sleep like that log. So I get up and read for an hour or so and then go back to bed and I’m right back to lala land. I also stopped worrying about stuff. If I’m going to die of a heart attack tomorrow then that’s what will happen. It happens too everyone. Except now people will miss me for my legacy and not my misery. Good night all.

    • Erik Bosma

      By the way, this was a bus ride that happened over a period of about 30 or 40 years. However, you can get off this bus at any stop you desire. Again, g’nite.

    • Spencer Weart

      Thanks for sharing. Key advice here comes near the end: If you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t stubbornly lie there for hours — get up and read something for half an hour or so, then back to bed. (Written at 4am, I’m using this trick!)

      • Mark Barna

        Thats what I do, but the researcher Bryce Mander told me to use night lights rather than turn on bright lights if you get up because the shine of bright lights can throw off your day-night sleep cycle.

    • OWilson

      Glad you worked it out. I’m older than you but I learned about chemicals (and those that dispense them) a long time ago.

      My last interaction with a “doctor” was over 40 years ago when I realised he had my whole family on prescription drugs, for “acne”, “allergies”, “menstrual pain”, and other assorted everyday maladies. That was in the seventies and it was the norm, there was a pill for anything physical and a Valium for everything else. Some pills can have a negative effect which require still other pills to treat.

      Turned out my wife was being given pills for a life ending condition, and Valium to keep her from complaining. But there was no point in blaming the doctor after the fact. They do what they do.

      Today, the pill pushers are even worse.

      If you understand how your body works, and how it was designed to work, you can fill it up with the correct fuel, and change the oil yourself. A little gentle excercise most days. Walking is good and helps you think straight.

      (I did go to a hospital to get a broken arm set, because that’s what they are for)

      I learned that the body heals most minor ailments, colds, flue, backache, upset tummy in about ten days, or less, without medication, and the doctor is just happy to take the credit.

      I sleep well most nights, but not always, so like the other poster says, don’t lie there and think about it. Get up and do something useful. 😉

      • Erik Bosma

        Haha.. I still remember in the early 1970’s and getting addicted to heroin. My parents took me to the doctor to get ‘help’. Yep, I got help all right. He gave me about 4 weeks of prescriptions to Valium. They sure did the trick because in 4 weeks I was no longer addicted to heroin. Nope, now I was addicted to Valium. Wow! Was that a barrel of laughs to come off of. Should have stuck with the heroin. Then I went to a community drug counsellor. He was old school, trained in the Ukraine. So twice a week I went to his house and he’d pull out a bottle of good Ukrainian vodka and a kielbassa and we’d get drunk. Again, took my cravings away immediately. So when I wasn’t at his place I knew where they sold vodka. The bar, of course. So here I was using heroin when I could afford it, pocketfull of Valium and a bottle of vodka in front of me at all times. I was sure starting to like this recovery stuff. Liked it for another 25 years after that. Thanks pros…. Of course this was my fault the whole time but I sure got a lot of great help along the way.

        • OWilson

          There comes a maturity in some people when they realize that “experts” and “professionals” are just human. Especially when they grow up around you in your own family :)

          Some folks never make that connection and wind up being disappointed that their experts and gurus are just as human as they are, and can be just as wrong! :)

  • llamabuff

    Stress has certainly played an important part in my inability to sleep. However, menopause really put a wrench in it. Something I discovered, was hormone replacement. I found a doctor who is into prevention, and uses only Bio-identical hormones, not the equine derivatives. They can bring your hormone levels back from 20 years ago. The best ones I have taken are the pellets put under the skin. The slow release makes them last about 4 months. If I go over the 4.5 months, I cannot get to sleep, and only sleep 2-3 hours a night. As soon as I get my treatment, within, a day or so, I am back to sleeping like a baby. That, and melatonin. No harm done to the body, and i sleep longer and more deeply. No grogginess in the morning.


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