Aging and Sleep

Many believe that older people sleep less at night because they need less sleep. But in fact the need for sleep stays the same as people age—what changes is what's known as "sleep architecture."

Normal sleep consists of two major states: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep is further divided into four stages, starting with Stage 1, the lightest level of sleep and progressing to Stage 4, the deepest.

But as people hit middle age, the deepest levels of sleep—Stage 3 and Stage 4—begin to decrease. This means that with aging, a greater portion of the night is spent in lighter levels of sleep, which increases the odds that an individual will wake up during the night.

Circadian rhythms (sleep/wake cycles) also may begin to change. In a condition known as advanced sleep phase syndrome (ASPS), a person becomes sleepy during the early evening, around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. and then awakens around 3 a.m. People with ASPS often complain that their sleep/wake times are out of step with normal life, causing them to be awake (or asleep) when others around them are not.

Light Therapy

Bright-light therapy in the late afternoon or early evening will delay the sleep/wake cycle, allowing the person to stay alert longer in the evening. Either exposure to bright sunlight or 30 minutes in front of a light box can be used.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 19 Jun 2013

Last Modified: 19 Jun 2013