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The older you get, the earlier you wake up in the morning. But that may not be just because you are getting older.

I'm in my sixties. 

Thirty years ago I certainly could get up at four or five o'clock in the morning on a heavy work day, and most of the time I did just that five or six days a week, but my natural wake up time was about nine in the morning. Then about twenty years ago I started waking up naturally about eight in the morning. Ten years ago my preferred wake up time was about seven o'clock in the morning. Now I wake up about 5:30 or six.

I'm relatively lucky as an aging person. If I wake up early on a day I don't have something planned to do, I can roll over and go back to sleep for a while. However, many older persons not only wake up too early, they can't go back to sleep. That's true even after nights they couldn't sleep well.

Insomnia Isn't Always Taken Seriously by Doctors

One study of insomnia in the elderly found that 69 percent of people over the age 60 mentioned that they had problems sleeping, but only 81 percent of their doctors bothered to make a note in their charts. There are a number of reasons insomnia in the elderly isn't taken seriously.

  • Elderly people are assumed to take naps during the day.
  • Feeling groggy during the daytime, or nodding off while sitting too long, are accepted as normal in older people.
  • Retired people don't have to rush off to work, so it's not considered to be as important for them to get good sleep.

The fact is, elderly people have sleep patterns very different from younger people. They spend more time in light sleep than younger people, and they spend less time in rapid eye movement or deep sleep. Seniors have shorter dream time than their younger counterparts. On average, people in their seventies get 90 minutes less sleep every night than people in their twenties. But does that mean that older people need less sleep?

Older People Need as Much Sleep as Anyone Else

According to Clifford Saper, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of neurology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, older people don't need less sleep. They just get less sleep. Hundreds of millions of people over the age of 60 are in a constant state of insomnia, awake at night, tired during the day. Some are able to take naps, but many are not.

Why do people lose their ability to get good sleep as they get older? There are two main reasons:

  • A cluster of neurons in the brain known as the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus dies off as people get older. The fewer nerve cells there are in this part of the brain, the less GABA and gabalin are made by the brain, and the shorter the time that people spend in deep sleep.
  • The brain's biological clock seems to shift as we get older. We get sleepier earlier in the evening, and begin to wake up earlier in the morning. 

People who have Alzheimer's disease lose especially large numbers of cells in the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus, and tend to to be active in the middle of the night as a result. Because they have greater risk of falling and other kinds of injuries, as a result many people have to be confined to nursing homes.

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