Struggling to sleep in as you age? Discover the surprising reason behind this change and learn what experts have to say.

The jokes about older adults waking up early and teenagers sleeping late have truth to them. Our natural sleep and wake times are part of our genetics and change as we age.

As we get older, our bodies change inside and out. These changes impact our sleep, according to Cindy Lustig, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. She explains there are interconnected reasons sleep changes as we age.

I asked Lustig and other experts to explain the main causes of these sleep changes with age. I also wanted their tips to get more sleep if you want those extra precious hours of zzz’s.

How Aging Impacts Our Natural Sleep Cycle

As we age, our brains become less responsive overall. “The brain’s wiring likely isn’t sensing and responding to inputs as well due to the aging process,” explains Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy, director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at the University of Arizona.

These “inputs” include sunset, sunlight, meals, social interactions, and exercise that help orient our brains to where we are in the 24-hour day. Parthasarathy calls them “time givers” because they help calibrate our circadian rhythms.

For older adults, dinner may not signal bedtime is nearing like it does in youth. The nerves communicating these time cues to the brain have also degraded. This difficulty syncing with circadian signals partly explains why seniors get tired and wake earlier than young people – their bodies are operating on shifted sleep-wake cycles.

The Impact of Vision Changes on Sleep

Vision deterioration that happens with age affects how much light reaches our brain. This disrupts our circadian rhythms, says Cindy Lustig, a psychology professor.

“The brain receives less intense light stimulation due to age-related vision changes,” she explains. This light input calibrates our internal clock.

Cataracts especially interfere, says Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy, director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences. Cataracts impact over 50% of people in their 80s and cause blurred, double vision.

“With cataracts, evening light doesn’t enter the eyes as much. So the brain thinks sunset came earlier than it did,” he says.

Less light means our brain starts releasing melatonin sooner. Melatonin makes us sleepy. So people with cataracts get tired earlier and go to bed earlier. Waking earlier follows.

Cataract surgery may help by improving light signals to the brain, per Lustig.

How to Sleep Better as You Age

If you struggle with early waking, ignore advice to avoid screens at night. Instead, seek bright light before sunset, says Dr. Parthasarathy.

Bright lights signal to your brain that the sun hasn’t set yet. This delays melatonin release so you feel sleepy later. Try reading a bright iPad, adding home lighting, watching bright TV, or going for an evening walk while it’s still light out.

Aim for 1-2 hours of light exposure ending 30-60 minutes before your area’s sunset time. The exact duration required may take some trial and error. But keeping lights on after dark helps too.

Avoid alcohol before bed as it disrupts sleep quality, adds Cindy Lustig. Morning sunlight and exercise can also help align your body clock.

While some sleep changes are inevitable with age, healthy habits can help counteract them. Prioritize bright light and you may gain those precious extra hours of rest.

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