Age-Related Sleep Problems

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on December 5, 2016

How did you sleep last night? Did you sleep between seven and nine hours? Was it high-quality, uninterrupted sleep?

Although adults need an average of seven to nine hours of sleep each night, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 30 percent of adults say they sleep for less than six hours. And much of that sleep is “segmented,” or interrupted.
The CDC considers insufficient sleep a public health problem. Daytime sleepiness can lead to decreased productivity at work and safety concerns such as vehicle crashes. Over time, sleep insufficiency can reduce overall quality of life and lead to chronic disease, including:

  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Obesity
  • Cancer

Insomnia and sleep problems affect people of all ages, but more women and older adults report sleep problems than men and younger people. Sameh Aziz, M.D., a pulmonologist and sleep specialist in Carilion Clinic’s Sleep Center, says that the nature of sleep problems tends to change as we age.
“Younger patients typically report more difficulty falling asleep, whereas older patients are more likely to report problems with maintaining sleep,” he said.
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
Teenagers need more sleep than older adults eight to 10 hours a night. This is a challenging goal when school starts early in the morning, because the natural sleep pattern for teens and young adults is to fall asleep late and wake up late.
“Teenagers and young adults with delayed sleep phase syndrome get mislabeled as insomnia patients,” said Dr. Aziz. "As long as they have no other health concerns, the sleep they do get tends to be high-quality and uninterrupted. If not for the early wake-up alarm, they would get enough sleep. Some school districts have adjusted their start times to accommodate teens’ sleep cycles."
Young adults can take the following steps to increase the amount of sleep they get:

  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes each day
  • Go to sleep at the same time every night instead of staying up later on the weekends
  • Develop and stick to a bedtime routine
  • Limit evening exposure to stimuli such as light and sound, especially backlit phones and computer screens
  • Open the curtains and turn on the lights when you wake up to access as much morning light as possible

Sleep Segmentation
Older patients who report sleep problems have the opposite problem. They are able to fall asleep easily, but they wake up repeatedly during the night and sometimes cannot get back to sleep. The cycle can be attributed to age-related health problems, such as:

  • Arthritis and chronic pain
  • Parkinson’s disease and restless legs syndrome
  • Urinary incontinence and prostate problems
  • Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
  • Medications

Sleep patterns can also be affected by anxiety or other mental health issues. Dr. Aziz recommends that these patients work with their primary care provider or a sleep specialist to understand how underlying disease and medications may affect the quality and duration of their sleep.
“It could be as simple as adjusting a dose or changing to another medication,” he said.
As with younger patients, Dr. Aziz recommends that patients experiencing sleep segmentation develop and stick to a nightly bedtime routine. He also recommends they examine their daytime sleep patterns and change them if necessary.
“Sometimes older patients try to make up for the lack of sleep they get by taking naps,” said Dr. Aziz. “That gets in the way of nighttime sleep.”

Everyone experiences sleep interruptions from time to time. People with chronic insomnia should consult their primary care provider to learn about new treatments that can help them get more and better sleep.