How Sleep Changes As You Age
Maintain quality rest with these expert-backed tips.
Blair UnderwoodOn Sleep
Guest editor Blair Underwood is no stranger to sleep challenges. The actor splits his time between the two coasts—and time zones—and often has 18-hour days on set. “Sleep is highly underrated. When I can get it, I like to get in,” says Underwood. “I tend to travel a lot; when you’re bouncing around in different time zones, you’ve got to pay attention to sleep, which is actually big.”
“As we get older, our brain structure and connectivity change in ways that make it harder to produce high-quality sleep,” says Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D., principal investigator at the Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Lab at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
It’s not a relentless demise, but it does take more effort to get restorative rest than it did when you were younger. Here’s how the changes that happen over time in your life and your brain disrupt how soundly you snooze, and more importantly, what you can do to offset the effects. You’re already off to a good start: Science shows regular exercise improves sleep duration and quality.
Your sleep architecture shifts.
Age has the biggest impact on sleep architecture, the amount of time you spend in each stage throughout the night, explains Sara Alger, Ph.D., cognitive neuroscientist and sleep researcher at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland.
It typically takes a person an hour and a half to cycle through the four stages: Non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) stages one, two, and three; and finally, REM sleep. As you age, the 90-minute cycle shortens. What’s more, you start spending more time in light sleep and less in non-REM stage three and REM sleep, the most restorative ones. (The former is crucial for physical regeneration, while the latter is essential for memory and emotional processing.) Overall, that makes you less alert during the day.
Fight it: Expose yourself to daylight first thing in the morning. A study in the journal Sleep Health found that a.m. rays can prevent mid-afternoon drowsiness (and help you nod off faster at night). Exercising at any time can help you be more attentive during the day, but switching to a morning workout might deliver an extra dose of wakefulness.
You need a more soundproof bedroom.
Spending more time in the lighter sleep stages means all those faint sounds you never noticed before—the cat landing on the bed, the flick of a light switch—will wake you up more often, Scullin says.
Fight it: Waking is triggered by any external stimulus, he adds. Earplugs, eye masks, and noise machines can help block and drown out disruptions.
Stress and alcohol interrupt your sleep more often.
Scullin says two major sleep disruptors tend to increase with age: Stress and alcohol consumption. Drinking may start out as a weekend activity and become more regular as you get older, thanks to happy hours with coworkers and wine with dinner.
“As your body digests the alcohol, it starts to interfere with REM sleep,” he explains. That disruption can lead you to wake up in the middle of the night. (Even a little bit of alcohol is enough to rouse you, he adds.) Family- and work-related stress also creeps up with age and can cause more fragmented sleep.
Fight it: “Everything you do during the day feeds back into your sleep quality at night,” Scullin says. To promote healthy rest, plan a few alcohol-free nights each week and practice deep breathing to relax before bed.
You get better at functioning on less sleep.
Even though you’re more tired on average, you also operate better on little to no rest than you did in college. Several studies (including this 2015 meta-analysis that Scullin co-authored) have found that older, sleep-deprived adults perform higher on memory, attention, mood, and cognition tests than their younger counterparts. The reasons for this are unclear. Over the years, we may become more accustomed to less rest or simply require fewer hours of shut-eye to function, Scullin says.
Fight it: Just because you can get by on less sleep in middle age doesn’t mean you should, Scullin says. Continue to aim for seven to nine hours per night, the ideal range for adults, Alger adds.
You get tired earlier at night.
The rhythms of biological control panels like melatonin and cortisol (which help regulate your circadian clock) change as you age, Scullin explains, so your schedule will resemble “early to bed, early to rise” more and more with each birthday that passes.
Fight it: Roll with this one, he says. If you feel sleepy at 9 p.m., don’t try to push it to 11 p.m. just to feel young. Your circadian rhythm will wake you at 5 a.m. either way, so you can either rest your body for more time, or less. All the science points to embracing those two extra hours.