Trouble Sleeping – What Keeps Seniors Awake at Night?

Getting older can bring many changes to our daily lives, and it can also affect our sleeping patterns. Many people find that as they age, they have a more difficult time falling and staying asleep than when they were younger. You may be struggling to get a full nights sleep in your older age. This article will outline the possible reasons why and give you some tips to alleviate the issue.

Sleep Duration And Sleep Patterns

The number of hours we spend sleeping each day/night throughout our lives is not static. As newborns, we can spend as much as 20 hours a day sleeping. Between ages one and four, this figure decreases to somewhere in the vicinity of 11 to 12 hours and eventually, as young adults well into our older age, we need and aim for approximately 8 hours of sleep per night.

Although it varies by person and there are many conflicting reports, the consensus seems to agree that 7-9 hours is what is needed to feel fully rested. Struggling to get near this amount can leave you feeling groggy the following morning and throughout the ensuing day.

Many adults and seniors report that they are not satisfied with the amount of sleep they are getting and say they are more tired during the day as a result. Studies of older Americans have shown that it is taking them longer to fall asleep, that there is an overall decline of REM sleep they are getting and that there is an increase of times they are waking up in the middle of the night. The prevalence of sleep disorders also seems to grow with age.

Understanding Sleep By The Stages

According to the American Sleep Association (ASA), there are 5 stages or phases of sleep. These are:

  • Stage 1
  • Stage 2
  • Stage 3
  • Stage 4
  • REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep

The stages go into one another and then repeat in the form of a cycle. The ASA goes on to say that we spend almost half our time in Stage 2 sleep.

During Stage 1, we are in a light sleep and easy to wake. Our eye movements and muscle activity begins to slow down. In Stage 2, our eye movement stops, and brain activity starts to slow. In Stage 3, something called “Delta waves” begin to appear which are extremely slow waves. In Stage 4, our brains are transmitting Delta waves only and both stages 3 & 4 are considered “deep sleep” stages. During REM sleep, our breathing speeds, our eyes move very fast in every direction, our heart rate increases, and our blood pressure rises.

What’s Waking You Up?

Frequently waking up in the middle of the night can happen to completely healthy seniors but there are also other reasons that could be contributing factors for those who may not be. These include: 

  • Alzheimers
  • Alcohol use
  • Changes in the internal clock
  • Medications, herbs, and supplements
  • Depression
  • Inactivity
  • Neurological conditions
  • Arthritis pain
  • Frequent urination

It is also possible that snoring or sleep apnea could be a cause for sleep disturbances in the elderly as well as restless leg syndrome (RLS)

Getting A Better Night’s Sleep

Many people believe that sleep problems are just a normal part of aging and cannot be helped so they do not actively seek treatment, but there are things you can do to address many of the causes for sleep disturbances and steps you can take towards getting a more satisfying night of sleep.

Developing healthy habits can make more of a difference than you may think.

Coffee, alcohol, and nicotine are all proven to interfere with sleep. If you are a coffee drinker, it is advisable to limit your intake and not consume any within 4 to 6 hours of your bedtime. Alcohol should be limited to two drinks or less per day, and you should not drink within 3-4 hours of bedtime.

Many of us get to a point in the afternoon where we feel tired and tempted to take a nap, but napping can make falling asleep later on more challenging because it can decrease our sleep drive. If you do decide to nap, you should keep it to 30 minutes or less and try to do it before 5 pm.

If you exercise daily, it is better to do it earlier in the day. Exercising stimulates our body and increases our energy for a few hours afterward so exercising too close to bedtime could make it difficult for you to fall asleep.

Many people watch TV right before bed and even leave the TV on as they try to fall asleep. The bright, backlit displays of today’s televisions can be very disruptive when we’re trying to fall asleep. Try to finish watching TV an hour or so before you decide to go to bed and give yourself time to unwind.

Try to form a routine where you go to sleep and wake at a similar time each night. We are creatures of habit, and our bodies will adjust to our schedules after a while and begin to anticipate sleep around the time we lay down at night if we remain consistent. Doing this will make it much easier to fall asleep at night.

Use your bedroom for sleep only if possible. Many people have computers, and many other electronics in their rooms and spend a lot of time doing other activities aside from sleeping in their bedrooms which can make it more difficult for the brain to make the connection between the bedroom and sleeping.

Make sure your bedroom is a comfortable temperature. It can be tough to fall asleep if you are hot or cold because you are likely to spend a lot of time tossing and turning.

No matter how old we are, sleeping is a vital part of our lives. Often, the quality of sleep we get at night reflects the quality of the following day. If you find you are having difficulty falling and staying asleep at night, it is important to identify what may be causing the issue because there is a good chance that there are steps you can take to aid you in getting better, more restful sleep.

Photo of author

Stevie Compango, CNSC, CPT

Stevie is Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for the past 10 years. He specializes in mobility and chronic pain management. His methods have helped thousands of clients improve the quality of their life through movement.

Recommended Articles


  • Harvard Medical School, "Changes in Sleep with Age,"
  • Rob Newson and John DeBanto, (October 2020), "Sleep Foundation",
  • American Sleep Association, "What is Sleep and Why is It Important?",
  • MedlinePlus, "Sleep disorders in older adults",
  • Harvard Medical School, "Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep",

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