Harvard Mental Health Letter

Insomnia in later life

Overcoming obstacles to a good night's rest.

The older you are, the more likely you are to have a sleep disorder. According to a National Institute on Aging study, more than 50% of people over age 65 report regular sleep problems that trouble them at night or interfere with daytime activities. They can't fall asleep when they want to, they wake up repeatedly, they wake up too early, their sleep is not refreshing, or they feel drowsy or groggy all day. Fortunately, our understanding of sleep itself and the sleep disorders of late life have improved greatly, and help is more easily available than ever.

Sleep becomes shallower and briefer with age. Its deepest stages practically disappear by age 50 in many people. As we grow older, we not only sleep more lightly but wake up more often, have more brief periods of wakefulness, and spend more time lying awake (experts use the term "poor sleep efficiency"). We may fall asleep and wake up earlier than is desirable, and make up for sleepless nights, if we can, by daytime napping.

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