It's Normal to Wake Up More Often as You Age

Waking up during the night is totally normal, but you may experience more sleep disruptions more often as you get older.

Pensive older woman looking out bedroom window.
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Many people relish the idea of slipping between the sheets and getting seven to nine hours of uninterrupted slumber. But that’s more of a dream than reality. The truth is, disruptions to sleep are common and normal.

“Sleep naturally comes with awakenings,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., a psychologist, sleep advisor, and board-certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist. “Polysomnography [sleep study] shows that adults experience 10 to 16 arousals during the night, although these may not be long enough to register or to remember. Knowing that should decrease people’s anxiety about their own awakenings.”

In order to dig deeper into patterns of sleep disruptions, we teamed up with SleepScore Labs, our partner in sleep data and science expertise. Based on information from nearly 31,000 people, ages 16 to 94, SleepScore found that the total amount of time people spend awake during the night increases with age — from 10% at age 20 to 24% at age 60. Not only does the amount of time older people spend awake at night increase, but they wake up more often during the night, as well. At age 20, people wake up an average of five times during the night; at age 60, this increases to an average of seven awakenings per night. What’s more, the average length of each awakening also increases with age — from approximately seven minutes each at age 20 to an average of 11 minutes at age 60.

“Changes in sleep across the lifespan can be a marker of both brain development and growth, but also of the natural aging process,” notes Elie Gottlieb, Ph.D., applied sleep scientist at SleepScore Labs. “Over time, areas of the brain responsible for initiating and maintaining sleep slowly begin to wither, causing a reduction in both the timing and intensity of sleep.

“Fortunately for older adults,” Gottlieb adds, “the magnitude of these slow-burning changes are modest and may even be tempered by optimizing the bedroom environment or prioritizing healthy sleep behaviors during the day.”

There are also differences in sleep quality over time between men and women. While SleepScore's data found that overall men spend slightly more time awake during the night than women do, the differences are quite small. However, as people get older, this gender gap widens, and men end up spending considerably more time awake during the night than women do.

How the way you sleep changes as you get older

One major change in sleep as people get older is that they get less deep, or slow wave, sleep and spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep, when it’s easier to be awakened by sounds or their partner’s movements, explains Wu. While younger people spend approximately 20% to 25% of their nights in deep sleep, this drops down to 5% to 10% as people get older, she says.

In addition, research has found that the amounts and patterns of secretion of sleep-related hormones — such as cortisol and melatonin — decrease as people get older, which can affect their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Older adults are also more likely to take multiple medications or have medical conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, and osteoarthritis, which can lead to sleep disturbances. Additionally, research has found that chronic pain, which becomes more common as people get older, is associated with more nighttime awakenings.

The exact reason why older people spend more time awake after their sleep is disrupted during the night isn’t clear. “One potential reason is that they may have more anxiety about sleep or worry that if they don’t get back to sleep quickly, they’ll be up longer during the night,” Wu says. Indeed, depression and anxiety are significant risk factors for the development of insomnia. No wonder a study in a 2018 issue of the journal "Aging & Mental Health" found that 60% of depressed older adults in the Netherlands Study of Depression in Older Persons had frequent sleep disturbances.

Minimizing disruptions to your sleep  

Even though it’s normal to have some nocturnal awakenings, you can take steps to minimize their frequency and impact, as well as to help yourself drift back to sleep more easily. For starters, you can reduce your chances of being awakened during the night by ensuring that your bedroom is quiet, comfortable, and dark. Once you’ve made sure you have a relaxed sleeping environment, try maintaining a consistent sleep schedule from one day to the next (yes, on the weekends, too); that way, your body and mind will know when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to be awake.

Another tip is to keep your nighttime noshing to a minimum and avoid consuming alcohol before bedtime. While having a glass (or two or three) of wine or beer or a cocktail can make you sleepy initially, alcohol disrupts your journey into deep sleep, making you more susceptible to disruptions. Older people are also more likely to report getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, so minimizing liquids in the hour before bedtime can be helpful.

Try to avoid watching arousing or upsetting TV shows or having heated discussions before bedtime. Anything that revs up your body or mind may not interfere with your ability to fall asleep but it could interfere with your ability to stay asleep, Wu warns. Give yourself ample time to process your thoughts and emotions during the day and carve out time to relax before bedtime. Before turning the lights out, spend a few minutes focusing on positive thoughts or writing in a gratitude journal, and you’ll increase your chances of snoozing longer and more peacefully throughout the night, research has found.

If your sleep still gets disrupted during the night, try to shrug it off. “A lot of times, we make the problem worse for ourselves by trying too hard to get back to sleep,” Wu says. While the conventional wisdom is to get out of bed if you can’t fall back to sleep in 15 to 20 minutes, Wu takes a more organic approach: “If you’re drowsy and not bothered by being awake, it’s fine to stay in bed,” she says. “Listen to your body.”

But if you are bothered by being unable to fall back to sleep, get out of bed and go to another room to read, meditate, or do something that’s not particularly challenging, like tidying up the kitchen or knitting. The idea is “to distract yourself from the anxiety or frustration of trying to get back to sleep,” Wu says. Go back to bed once you feel drowsy or ready to snooze again. “You don’t want to come to associate your bed with wakefulness,” Wu says.

If taking these steps doesn’t help you tamp down your nighttime awakenings, you may want to talk to your health care provider or consider doing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A study in a 2020 issue of the journal "Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases" found that doing CBT, plus regular aerobic exercise, for two months helped people with diabetes reduce their sleep disturbances and improve their sleep quality.

At any age, it’s worth making a concerted effort to set the stage for sounder sleep — and to help yourself get plenty of it.