The sleep-wake process works by balancing the amount of sleep a person needs with the time spent awake. Our biological clock is a 24-hour body rhythm affected by sunlight. It regulates hormones such as melatonin, which is secreted during the night and promotes sleep, and other processes such as body temperature. Sleeping at a time that is in sync with this rhythm is important for healthy sleep.
Unfortunately, many older adults get less sleep than they need. One reason is that they often have more trouble falling asleep. A University of Wisconsin School of Medicine study of adults over 65 found that 13 percent of men and 36 percent of women take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep. Also, older people often sleep less deeply and wake up more often throughout the night, which may be one reason that they nap more often during the daytime.
Nighttime sleep schedules may change with age, too. Many older adults tend to get sleepier earlier in the evening and awaken earlier in the morning than they did when they were younger.
There are many possible explanations for these changes. Older adults may produce and secrete less melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep. They may also be more sensitive to — and may awaken because of — changes in their environment, such as noise. If you have questions regarding your sleep pattern, please discuss this with your primary care doctor during your next visit to the medical center.
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