The Link Between Sleep and Aging

The Link Between Sleep and Aging

Remember when you could sleep through the night, sometimes clocking ten or more hours of deep, restful sleep?  As you have gotten older, have you found that you simply can’t sleep in any longer?  You’re not alone; over a typical human lifespan, the amount of time we spend each day sleeping declines. 

A recent survey with over 1000 respondents found that 86% of North Americans have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least once a week. On average, the CDC reports that 35% of us receive fewer than 7 hours a night, the CDC-recommended number of hours of sleep.  Their research shows this statistic worsening each decade from the ages of 18 to 55. 

There seems to be a link between sleep and aging.  However, does sleep depend on our lifestyle or biology? Or could it be the other way around - that the quality of our sleep affects how we age?



Newborns can sleep through a storm.  Teenagers can be impossible to wake up.  Meanwhile, adults feel like they can never get enough sleep.   Sleep patterns certainly change during our major life and development stages. 


Newborns spend 16-20 hours sleeping per day, but, as new parents certainly know, their sleep is often erratic in the first few months.  This is because their circadian rhythm – or internal clock – has not been established yet, nor are they producing the hormones that control sleep. Comparatively, infants sleep about 12 hours, and adolescents get about 9-10 hours a night. During these early years, sleep patterns are generally determined by biology.



Adulthood then brings on a variety of lifestyle factors that can affect sleep, like shift work, travel and the stresses of life.  Setting aside these lifestyle factors, biologically, how our bodies manage sleep does not change dramatically as we age.


Our bodies have an internal sleep clock – called the circadian pacemaker– which determines when we feel sleepy and when we wake up.  This clock has a rhythm with 4 broad stages of sleep.  The first is REM sleep which features rapid eye-movement often associated with dreaming.  The next 3 stages are called Non-REM sleep, characterized by decreasing levels of brain wave activity as we move into deeper and deeper sleep.


This 4-stage structure of our sleep does not change as we age.  But, the amount of time our bodies need in the individual stages of the cycle changes:  Children spend 50 minutes in the 4-stage cycle, while adults typically spend around 90 minutes in a sleep cycle. 


Within the sleep cycle there are differences.  Newborns and infants typically spend about twice as much time in the first stage, REM sleep, than adults, as it is thought to assist in brain development. So, adults will spend more time in the Non-REM stages of the cycle, and will experience fewer total sleep cycles than children during a typical night.


It is our hormones that keep this rhythm in sync.  Melatonin helps promote falling asleep at night, while cortisol wakes us up in the morning.  The right balance of melatonin and cortisol in our bodies is critical for good sleep: one should be high when the other is low and vice-versa.  When these hormones are out of balance or experience large fluctuations, sleep can be affected. 


During important development stages - when teenagers develop into adulthood, or women go through pregnancy and menopause – hormone levels can spike or drop, creating sleep disruptions and reducing the hours slept each night.




We often evaluate sleep simply in terms of its duration.  However, good sleep is more than just about length.  We can evaluate sleep quality using 4 factors: Starting, Length, Intensity, and Maintenance (“SLIM” for short):


  1. Starting: assesses how easily you can fall asleep when you first close your eyes
  2. Length: gauges the duration of total sleep
  3. Intensity: is the measure of deep sleep you are getting
  4. Maintenance: is the ability to remain sleeping and resist waking (e.g. from noise, light, stress, pain, etc)


These factors explain why some people can function healthily with just a few hours of sleep.  As we age, we can change our true sleep quality - how you feel in the morning and your alertness during the day - by improving our scores on the other 3 factors besides Length: Starting, Intensity and Maintenance.



If our bodies do not change how they manage sleep during adulthood, then does age affect sleep or could it be the other way around?  By improving our sleep quality, could we change our “inner age” or how old we feel?

Feeling “old’ is often associated with a lack of energy, greater joint pain, and lack of mobility.  These symptoms of older age can be eliminated or delayed by improving your sleep quality.   We spend about a third of our lives sleeping – and with good reason. Restful, restorative sleep is incredibly important for our bodies and minds. 


In fact, by focusing on the lifestyle choices you make that affect the 4 sleep quality factors, you could reduce your inner age!  Perhaps the old saying – “You’re only as old as you feel” – can be true not just for a moment in time, but for an extended period of your everyday life.



What are some sleep tips to feel younger and “reverse” aging?

  • Start with Your Bed. Is your mattress supporting your lower back and keeping your spine aligned? Is your pillow supporting your neck? Would you sleep better if you had better pressure-relief near your hips and shoulders? Do you have a temperature-neutral sleep surface or do you get hot in bed? Are you able to comfortably sit up to read or watch TV in bed?


  • Consider Your Environment. Does your partner snore, have breathing issues or move often in bed? Would you sleep better in independent but connected beds? Is your room too bright, or too noisy?  Is the humidity correct in your room?


  • Check Your Bedtime Routine. Do you drink caffeine late in the day? Can you avoid eating or drinking alcohol at least 3 hours before bedtime?  What would encourage you to reduce time on your devices before bed?  Do you maintain a regular schedule through the week?


  • Watch Your Exercise & Diet. Do you get the recommended amount of daily exercise for someone your age? Do you exercise at the right time of day?  Do you limit high-fat, spicy foods?  Have you checked if your drinks and medication contain hidden caffeine?


  • Reflect on your mental health. Do you have racing thoughts that prevent you from falling asleep? Are you struggling to cope with trauma or loss? Are you stressed about work or family?  Have you considered speaking to a doctor or therapist to help cope with your anxiety?  Have you tried practicing meditation?


By making small changes in your lifestyle and environment, you can dramatically improve your sleep quality and reduce your “inner age”. 


To learn more about how you can improve your sleep quality, contact the friendly sleep experts at Ultramatic.