Do Sleep Patterns Change With Age?

5 min read

Last Modified 3 September 2021 First Added 6 April 2021

By Nat Took

We all know that good sleep is an important factor for a healthy lifestyle. But as you get older, you may find sleep more difficult to come by. There are many reasons for this, such as: medication, aches and pains, changing biological rhythms, etc. We’ll explore these throughout this article. So, whether you’re old, young, middle-aged or a teen, join us as we dig into why sleeping patterns change with age and what you can do about it.

How do sleep patterns change with age?

From childhood to adulthood, a healthy amount of sleep differs for each group. Children and adolescents need more sleep, as this is when growth occurs. As an adult, you’re no longer growing, and so do not need as much sleep.

According to the Sleep Foundation the recommended hours of sleep for different ages are:

  • 0-3 months old – 14 to 17 hours;
  • 4-11 months old – 12 to 15 hours;
  • 1-2 years old – 11 to 14 hours;
  • 3-5 years old – 10 to 13 hours;
  • 6-13 years old – 9 to 11 hours;
  • 14-17 years old – 8 to 10 hours;
  • 18-64 years old – 7 to 9 hours;
  • 65 years old and older – 7 to 8 hours.

Sleep pattern changes in older adults

Throughout your life, your sleep patterns are controlled by circadian rhythms or your “body clock”. This rhythm is connected to the cycle of day and night and works on a similar 24-hour duration.
Light inhibits the production of the “sleep hormone” melatonin, and darkness stops this hormone from being inhibited. This hormone signals to your body that it’s time to sleep.

However, as we age, our circadian rhythm “shifts”. And it’s at around 60-65 years when this shift is most substantial. This is called phase advance. Here’s how describe the phenomenon:

A phase shift in your circadian rhythms means that your bedtime and wake-up time will move earlier in the day (phase advance) or later in the day (phase delay).

When experienced naturally, this shift is a slow process,  about half an hour earlier every decade. This shift means that you will start feeling sleepier earlier in the evening and be more alert in the morning. Be aware that this isn’t the case for everyone and some people may have different changes due to lifestyle and environmental factors.

Changes in sleep pattern due to age

Phase advance can affect your sleep pattern in a number of ways. Firstly, you’re likely to want to go to sleep and wake up earlier. It’s not uncommon for older adults to head to bed between 7-8pm, then wake between 3-4am. However, this doesn’t fit with modern life, so it can be tempting to try to stay awake later. But this will not stop you from waking up early. Because of this waking up earlier, regardless of when you go to sleep, daytime napping is often used as a coping mechanism. However, this can make it difficult again to fall asleep when evening comes.

When it comes to sleep quality, older adults tend to have less REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is the deep sleep that you need to rest. Instead, older adults spend more time in the lighter sleeping phases.

This change in sleep pattern can have a knock-on effect. As you try to stay awake later, still wake up early and nap during the day, you lose quality sleep. In fact, insomnia in the elderly is common. This has led to the myth that older adults need less sleep, despite their needs still clocking at around 7-8 hours per night.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Sleep Cycles

elderly woman struggling to sleep

Why do sleep patterns change in older adults?

It’s not yet known why this phase advance, causing a shift in sleep patterns, occurs. It’s likely to be a combination of factors, including environmental and biological factors.
According to the Sleep Foundation some factors that could cause this change include:

  • Genes that keep the biological rhythm in check lose their rhythm and are replaced with other genes that act a little differently;
  • Older adults may spend less time outside, natural light is key to keeping your circadian rhythm in check;
  • Ageing eyes may not let as much light in, meaning that the circadian rhythm isn’t regulated as well.

How to sleep better with a circadian rhythm change

The easiest way to deal with this circadian shift, is to simply accept it and go to bed when you feel tired and wake up naturally. However, this can be very hard to fit in with modern life. Most of society doesn’t go to bed until much later than 7pm. Instead there are ways to improve your sleep with small changes in sleep hygiene, such as:

  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and tobacco later in the afternoon;
  • Eating a healthy diet;
  • Keeping the bedroom dark, cool and quiet;
  • Avoiding blue light (e.g. TV, tablets and smart phones) before bed;
  • Keeping naps to a maximum of 30 minutes.

Read more: How to Make Good Sleep a Strong Habit

In conclusion, sleep patterns can and do change with age. But as the world doesn’t change its habits too, this can be an inconvenience in modern society. Getting enough quality sleep is vital for good health, and there are ways you can still get a good night’s sleep, even if you want to stay up later than your biological clock wants you to.

Has your sleeping pattern changed as you’ve gotten older? Check out our article on Sleep Chronotypes and see if yours matches up.

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