A recent National Sleep Foundation survey of adults 55 and older found that one-third of people 55-64 and one quarter of people 65-84 reported declining sleep quality.
Health conditions such as chronic pain, restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea may cause troubled sleep, but even healthy adults can experience sleep problems as they age.
To understand why healthy older adults don’t sleep well, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) compared data on sleep in 21-30 year-olds to data from 60-74 year-olds.
Elizabeth Klerman, lead researcher and a physician at BWH, said, “Our study found that both young and old people had no trouble falling asleep, but the older population was four times more likely to wake up throughout the night when compared to younger people.
During the sleep cycle, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is associated with dreaming. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep is associated with sleeping, accounting for about 75% of an adult’s sleep.
Contrary to expectations, researchers saw that the ability to fall back asleep was not significantly different between younger and older participants, suggesting that the problem in older adults is difficulty in remaining in the NREM sleep cycle.
The findings will influence how future sleep treatments are developed for older persons.
To that end, Klerman wrote, “Our findings suggest that the most effective therapies for reducing the sleep disruptions associated with healthy aging should target the continuity of sleep.”
Source: Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, October 2012 HealthHub, August 24, 2012 Study published in Neurobiology of Aging