Research shows that people often have more difficulty falling asleep and gaining a full night of restful sleep as they get older. On average, it takes about 13 minutes to fall asleep after going to bed and turning out the lights. Two thirds of individuals fall asleep on most nights within 7 to 20 minutes. As they age, however, it takes longer for most people to drift into slumber.
People between the ages of 30 and 50 tend to fall asleep more quickly than adolescents or older people. An average person between 30 and 50 falls asleep in about 10 minutes. After age 50, most people experience a steady increase in the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. On average, people in their 60s fall asleep after 14 minutes.
Other studies suggest that “beginning in middle age, the average person loses 27 minutes of sleep per night for each subsequent decade.” Why that is true is not entirely clear. Perhaps the body processes circadian signals less efficiently as it ages. Symptoms of sleep disorders, including insomnia, are also more prevalent in older people.
Medical problems, including bladder control issues, can lead to frequent waking during the night. Older people are also at increased risk of experiencing depression, a clinical disorder that can lead to sleep disturbances.
Sleep medication is not usually the best response to a natural change in sleeping patterns. Medical guidelines caution against prescribing sleep medications unless other methods to induce sleep are unsuccessful. Prescription medication can cause confusion, impair memory, and increase the risk of falls.
Over-the-counter products can have similar side effects. They also tend to cause urinary retention and constipation. Melatonin, an unregulated sleep aid, has little impact on the quality of sleep and may cause grogginess the next day.
The FDA and prescription drug manufacturers urge patients to take sleep medications as a short-term solution to poor sleep. Older people who take sleep medications often to take them for years, perhaps creating other health issues, including an enhanced risk of heart failure.
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Several factors may affect the time it takes to fall asleep, including the amount of sleep an individual has had during the past several nights. People who follow a routine, waking up and going to bed at the same time every day, usually have less difficulty falling asleep.
Before following a medicated path to sleep, it is best for people of all ages to explore natural alternatives. Researchers who study sleep suggest these natural remedies to sleeplessness:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends.
- Relax in the same way every night before bedtime. Regularly reading or taking a warm bath before bedtime signals the body that it is time to sleep.
- Avoid the use of gadgets with screens before going to sleep. If the gadget has a Night Shift setting, use it.
- Avoid caffeine, whether from coffee or caffeinated sodas, later in the day.
- Late afternoon or evening naps may seem refreshing, but they often disrupt the sleep cycle. Try to avoid them.
- Alcohol might make you sleepy but drinking before bedtime makes sleep less refreshing. You might also wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty falling asleep again.
- Treat underlying health issues, including depression, that have a negative impact on sleep.
Some psychologists and behavioral social workers are trained to provide cognitive behavioral therapy as treatment for insomnia. There is evidence that insomnia-specific cognitive behavioral therapy has better and safer outcomes than treating insomnia with drugs.