When we think about the aging process, we don’t always think about how it affects sleep. But based on what we know about how the different sleep stages change as we rest, it’s something we’ll want to pay more attention to. Here’s what the science says about how aging can affect sleep.
The stage that we spend less time in the older we get.
Multiple studies have shown that the older we get, the less time we spend in deep sleep each night. Just as a refresher, deep sleep is also known as stage 3 sleep, and it’s essential for muscle and tissue growth, as well as cellular repair.
As naturopathic sleep doctor Catherine Darley, N.D., previously explained to mbg, roughly 75% (and up to 85%) of our total growth hormone in a day is secreted during deep sleep.
According to one 2017 study published in the scientific journal Neuron, it appears we get less deep sleep as we age because of key changes to certain neurons and circuits in the areas that regulate sleep as we age, which results in less non-REM sleep.ADVERTISEMENT
Other sleep changes that happen with age.
Interestingly, not only do we get less non-REM sleep (stages 1 through 3) the older we get, but we actually get less REM sleep too—aka the sleep stage in which we dream. In fact, babies can spend up to 50% of their sleep in this stage, but adults average only about 20 to 25% in REM.
On top of that, older adults are more like to report sleep disturbances, such as less time asleep in general, more frequent nighttime wakeups, and more. As neurologist Nicole Avena, Ph.D., previously explained to mbg, “Quality of sleep can decline [with age] due to hormonal changes, medical complications, and stress.”
What to do about it.
If all of this sounds bleak, there is good news: You can help your body get more deep and restful sleep through lifestyle changes as you age. Namely, according to Darley, exercise is one research-backed intervention for getting more deep sleep. Research on middle-aged and elderly adults has shown that exercise promoted increased sleep efficiency and duration regardless of the mode and intensity of activity.
And if you’re looking to get more REM sleep, studies show you’ll want to lay off the booze before bed, as it’s known to inhibit this sleep stage as well. Practicing good sleep hygiene, avoiding technology before bed, and taking a relaxing sleep supplement can also help you catch some more zzz’s, no matter your age.*
The bottom line.
We could still use some more research on the exact mechanisms behind sleep changes and aging (and what it means for us); in the meantime, you can take steps to get better sleep on your own, no matter how old you are.