Aging and Sleep: Sleep Tips for Older Adults

October 4, 2019 | Casper Editorial Team

Fact checked by Jonathan Eilenberg, CPE

Updated 05/24/2024

*This article is for general information purposes only and is not intended as medical or other professional advice. Visit the links within the text for sources. Casper has not independently verified the sources.
The golden years can be some of the best in a person’s life. Seniors have the opportunity to enjoy their legacy with family and friends, all while enjoying life as it comes. From spending time with their grandchildren to walks around the neighborhood, everyone hopes to unwind during this phase of life.
Only if they’re well-rested for it.
Along with all the good things, growing older can bring on some negative side effects, especially when it comes to sleep. While this is completely natural, it’s harder to enjoy the simple things in life if you’re having trouble sleeping as an older adult.
This occurs because our circadian rhythms, or internal clocks, begin to change with age. So, for an older adult, what used to be TV time can turn into bedtime, and the middle of the night can, unfortunately, turn into “rise and shine” time.
Here is what you need to know in order to stay healthy and awake throughout the day. This guide includes some of the most and least common sleep issues and sleep disorders that can come with age, how and why your sleep cycle may be evolving in relation to your health, and additional resources to help you better understand sleep as you age.
Remember: It’s important to consult your doctor about any of your sleep issues and concerns as you learn about how to adapt to a new sleep cycle.
A woman falls asleep at the kitchen table while holding a cup of coffee. Illustration.

Sleeping Problems in Older Adults

If you experience sleep problems, you’re not alone. One study found that 75% of older adults experience insomnia symptoms. This means seniors aren’t getting REM sleep — the type of sleep needed to fully recharge.
It’s important to note that although insomnia is one of the most common side effects age has on sleep, it’s definitely not the only sleep disorder that can interfere with slumber. Below you’ll find a comprehensive list of sleep disturbance disorders that may be contributing to a poor night’s rest as you age. Remember to consult your doctor with any concerns regarding your sleeping habits.
A man gasps in his sleep while his wife watches with a worried expression on her face. Illustration.
Sleep Apnea 
One of the more serious sleeping disorders is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea causes you to momentarily stop breathing while asleep. Classified into central, obstructive and complex types of the disorder, all three have similar symptoms. These include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Dry mouth when awake
  • Waking up gasping for air
  • Pauses in breathing while sleeping (as reported by a sleeping partner)

So, how can sleep apnea be treated? The best thing to do is to see a doctor.

A woman massages her legs in a dimply lit bedroom. Illustration.

Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) in older adults is one of those annoying conditions that can actually strike at any age. According to the Mayo Clinic, professionals suspect that it’s caused by an imbalance of dopamine in the brain — triggering involuntary muscle movement. It’s commonly thought of as a hereditary condition.

A critical indicator of RLS is an uncomfortable sensation in your leg that is mitigated by shaking your legs out. These sensations can include:

  • Throbbing
  • Pulling
  • Crawling
  • Aching

If any of these pertain to you, it’s important to talk to your doctor because it’s possible for these symptoms to worsen with age, making sleep more difficult. The syndrome can also be a derivative of more serious health conditions in extreme cases, so be sure to consult your doctor.

Along with medical treatments, doctors may recommend self-care options as well. Yoga, regular stretching and massaging can help ease the sensations at night, and moving when you have the urge can also help. These aren’t replacements for medical attention but can help with daily occurrences.

A man with a frustrated look on his face looks at the night sky from bed. Illustration.

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
Originally considered night owls, researchers have now deemed those unable to sleep at night as sufferers of Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS). Prevalent in young adults, this sleep problem can worsen in old age. The condition becomes serious if it starts interfering with everyday life.

Those who suffer from DSPS will usually be unable to fall asleep until well past midnight and have extreme difficulty waking up in the morning.

There aren’t many ways to treat this sleep problem on your own. Try shifting your sleep schedule, making sure you’re tiring yourself out completely before bed, and going to sleep at a set time. Ideally, your room should be properly prepared for sleep as well. If this doesn’t work, see a doctor, and they will likely have methods for clinically shifting your circadian rhythm for better sleep.

A woman sits at a table with a sleepy look on her face. A man at the other end of the table is shaky and tired. Illustration.

The main byproduct of narcolepsy is unbearable tiredness during the day, to the point where some individuals will fall asleep unwillingly at inappropriate times.

Caused by a lack of hypocretin (the chemical that regulates REM sleep), narcolepsy can make everyday life extremely difficult to maneuver — especially at an older age when most activities occur during the day. Because it can shift your circadian rhythm, narcolepsy will make falling asleep at night more difficult as well.

Symptoms of narcolepsy include:

  • Sudden loss of muscle control — individuals may exhibit slurred speech or muscle weakness for a short period of time
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Hallucinations right before falling asleep

While the above may seem scary, narcolepsy is a chronic yet well-known condition that doctors can help with. Common sleep medicine includes different types of stimulants or REM sleep inhibitors that regulate sleep patterns. It’s best to talk to your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, as side effects can deteriorate your general health and wellness.

Self-care practices that help narcolepsy include talking with those around you to ensure your safety, taking short intermittent naps and avoiding depressants like alcohol.

A man sits wide-awake in bed. Illustration.

Insomnia is probably the most well-known sleep condition to affect older adults. With 39 percent of older adults reporting that they wake up many times during the night, insufficient sleep duration is a common occurrence for those that are 65+. There are two types of insomnia: acute and chronic. Acute, short-term insomnia can be caused by stress or a traumatic experience. Chronic insomnia can be caused by mental health disorders, medications, or underlying health conditions.

Symptoms of both include:

  • The inability to sleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Rising too early
  • Inability to fall back asleep

Particularly with age, a decrease in daily activity, shifting sleep patterns and increased medication intake can spur insomnia. It’s important to monitor your sleep habits as you grow older and take note of any changes that could indicate insomniatic tendencies.

In addition to talking to your doctor, staying active is a great way to combat insomnia and get better sleep. This not only keeps you healthy, but regular activity can help tire out your body to a point where sleep is a comfort rather than a chore.

A woman lies in bed thinking about worries. Illustration.

Hypersomnia is the opposite of insomnia — meaning, those who suffer from it feel overbearing daytime sleepiness and experience excessive oversleeping. A more extreme version of narcolepsy, individuals with hypersomnia not only fall asleep involuntarily, but also have major difficulty waking from such instances. Hypersomnia can make social and professional interactions difficult, due to the accompanying side effects and symptoms of the excessive sleep duration:

  • Anxiety
  • Decreased energy
  • Impaired computing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of memory

Many people’s greatest fear with hypersomnia is falling asleep behind the wheel, so be sure to talk with your doctor immediately if you start displaying symptoms. Treatments usually include stimulants that help balance out your sleep schedule.

An well-rested older man and his younger son sit at the table for breakfast. Illustration.

Common Causes of Sleep Problems

While there is no overarching cause of sleep problems for older adults, there are a couple shifts in lifestyle that can contribute to the onset of such conditions. These include the following:

  • Lack of Activity: Because the majority of older adults start to decrease activity with age, the body naturally become less tired. This plays a huge role in your sleep cycle — it’s important to have active days so that you are tired by bedtime.
  • Increase in Medication: Other health conditions that require medication can play a role in sleep. Whether they make you drowsy or alert, always ask your doctor about the side effects of the medication you’re prescribed — especially if sleep is already an issue.
  • Stress/Anxiety: Daily life and episodes of stress can cause acute sleep problems, especially the inability to sleep. It’s advised to acknowledge your stress, find the root cause, write it down and know you can deal with it in the morning. Therapy is another viable option should the episodes persist.
  • Shifted Sleep Cycles: It’s completely natural to start going to bed earlier and waking earlier with age. Be prepared to make changes like eating earlier or watching less television to ease into the new routine.
  • Other Health Issues: As we age, our bodies are at an increased risk of developing additional medical conditions. Depending on the ailment, sleep can be drastically impaired. For example, gastrointestinal or respiratory issues can directly impact sleep problems. Keep in touch with your doctor as any new health concerns arise to address them appropriately.

A woman lifts small weights on a yoga mat. Illustration.

Tips for Aging and Sleep

Luckily, you’re not alone when facing these conditions. Sleep is a crucial part of life, so there are many options out there to help you live better. Aside from medical attention, there are steps you can take to drastically improve your sleeping habits.

  • Get Outside: Outdoor physical activity is the best way to keep your body in rhythm. Shooting for about an hour of activity and sunlight each day will help your overall health, and also tire you out enough to get some shut eye. It’s important to note, though, that exercising too close to bed can keep you up and prevent a good night of sleep.
  • Talk With Family, Friends and Colleagues: For both peace of mind and safety, talking with those around you can be a great way to cope with sleep impairments. First, for those with conditions like RLS or insomnia, it can be comforting to tell people why you’re pacing around the house at night or trying to chat at 3 a.m. Also, for those with severe cases of hypersomnia or narcolepsy, it’s important to let those around you know about them in order to stay safe. As with any health impairment, talking with others can be a successful strategy to help alleviate any concerns you have and hear the perspective of loved ones who are there to help.
  • Keep a Journal: Journaling provides two major benefits to those who are having trouble sleeping. First, it’s a good way to reflect on the day and help calm your mind while easing into bed. Second, you’ll become more mindful, which will help set you up for a restful night of sleep. Sleep journals are also recommended for tracking your sleeping disorders. By recording every morning how the night went sleep-wise, you can help your doctor better understand your specific ailment and treat it accordingly.
  • Practice Yoga: A study published by the National Institutes of Health highlighted that yoga can directly impact the quality of sleep in older adults. Claiming that 67 percent of this population had at least one sleep-related complaint, they studied the effects of yoga on sleep. The results showed that not only can the activity help with sleep, but also can increase overall quality of life, as reported by the subjects studied. There’s no need to do an intense class for this to take effect, either. A simple relaxing yoga routine will do the trick.

A man and his doctor chat happily. Illustration.

How Much Sleep Do Older Adults Need?

Older adults should get the same amount of sleep as younger adults — ideally seven to nine hours. This time period gives the body enough time to go in and out of deep sleep, helping with muscle recovery and body rejuvenation processes. It’s important to note that falling asleep can be harder for this age group, so plan accordingly when constructing your bedtime routine.

When to See a Doctor About Sleep Problems

You should see a doctor about sleep problems when they start to interfere with your everyday life. This can be as simple as consistently being tired during family time or as severe as falling asleep behind the wheel. Be honest with yourself, and realize that many others have the same concerns, so a doctor will be ready to talk about your concerns.
It’s best to catch your symptoms early and figure out a plan with your doctor. The longer you wait to find a solution, the more harm your sleep schedule can incur.
A woman happily reads a book in a chair during daylight hours. Illustration.

Additional Resources

The below sleep resources can be helpful in identifying your personal situation and providing advice. Feel free to review our additional resources below!
Impact of Long Term Yoga Practice on Sleep Quality and Quality of Life in the Elderly
The Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine highlights how yoga can be used to treat insomnia in older adults.
8 Ways to Improve Sleep Quality as You Age
The Mayo Clinic has provided 8 additional suggestions for getting a better night of sleep.
Aging and Sleep: Making Changes for Brain Health
Here Harvard researchers elaborate on the causes of some sleep conditions found in older adults.
Untreated Sleep-Disordered Breathing: Links to Aging-Related Decline in Sleep-Dependent Memory Consolidation
This study analyzes the relationship between sleep deprivation and decreased motor skills in elderly persons.
The degradation of sleep with age is a scary yet treatable occurrence that often comes with seniority. It’s important to treat any suspected condition as soon as possible to prevent damage to your sleep cycle. Remember, it’s just changing, not broken. So take a deep breath, hop on your perfect mattress and enjoy a restful night of sleep.