Elderly couple by the sea

Sleep in old age

Sleep as we grow older:

The body becomes less resilient, the skin begins to wrinkle. But not only the body adapts, sleep changes too.

We often have the image of getting older that the body changes, that we become weaker, that we need more rest and that going to bed becomes easier. In reality, however, sleep also changes significantly with age, and influences such as the transition from working life to retirement or health concerns have an impact on sleep and the associated phases.

The waking phases lengthen with age

Probably the biggest change takes place from around the age of 40. Here, it is said, you increase the time you lie awake at night by about one minute per year. If you compare a teenager with a 65-year-old, you can definitely see a difference in the time spent awake in bed of up to 1.5 hours.

Anyone who lies awake for longer than 30 minutes does not automatically have a difficulty falling asleep.

People aged 60 and over often take longer to fall asleep. This is not unnatural but rather a biological process to which one has to get used. Many people tend to turn directly to medication, but this does not really work for age-related changes in sleep. Going to the family doctor is only really recommended when this problem becomes more serious and disturbs your daytime well-being.

How much sleep is necessary in old age?

You really can't generalise. Every person has individual needs. Even in old age, there are people who sleep longer and people who sleep shorter. A distinction is made between short and long sleepers. Short sleepers manage to get optimal performance for the day from minimal sleep and long sleepers usually need a little more regeneration time, which in no way means that they are less productive. Often a certain fatigue develops during the day and usually everyday life allows for breaks, which is why many resort to a midday nap. From a medical point of view, an afternoon nap is not necessarily inadvisable, but you should make sure that it does not last longer than 30 minutes, otherwise you will fall into the deep sleep phase and your brain will need much longer to be able to perform again after you wake up.

Preparing for sleep is essential for the necessary rest

When you go to sleep also depends on what chronotype you are and what rhythm your body has. (You can find out more about chronotypes in this article!) You learn which chronotype you are through everyday life, but you should bear in mind that your chronotype can also change. So it is not uncommon to be a lark in your younger years and now become an owl. So you should not force sleep because you were used to a different rhythm.

The television is a popular means of falling asleep in German households. It, too, is not in itself a hurdle to falling asleep well. Laptops and smartphones, on the other hand, should be avoided because they emit blue light and this lowers the melatonin level, which tells the body it is daytime.

The right mattress is infallible. Although it is a myth that older people need a softer mattress, it is important to use a product that is individually adapted to the respective body. You can find a suitable mattress that does just that here!

The right diet and exercise also play a role in old age. For example, care should be taken not to put too much strain on the body before immediate sleep and an eye should be kept on meals especially before bedtime. It is especially important for people over the age of 60 to drink enough at midday, because the body tends to dehydrate more quickly at that age, which has a direct impact on energy and recovery.

What difficulties can arise?

Sleep problems develop differently in men and women. While men, especially from the age of 50, suffer from the so-called REM sleep behaviour disorder, women in the menopause lose the oestrogens that stabilise sleep and prevent nocturnal respiratory episodes, and therefore experience increased insomnia and, in some cases, breathing pauses.

Medications such as blood pressure or cholesterol-lowering drugs also worsen sleep, and some medications can even cause nightmares.

The transition from working life to retirement is also a hurdle, because while it usually allows for a little more rest, it is still a grave change in a person's everyday life and changes the usual environment and interaction with social contacts. Physically and also mentally, the person must first get used to this different life, which takes up a lot of energy. Worries about certain things also remain and cause difficulties for free sleep, perhaps not the same as when younger or with smaller children, but for illnesses, the grandchildren or caring for the family.

Sleep goes down a natural change. Just as you adapt to your ageing body, you have to do the same with your sleep. Often it is quite an unfamiliar situation to experience a new sleeping pattern, but this is by no means negative or necessarily damaging - much more the course of life.