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Healthy Living > sleep

The Truth About Sleep As We Age

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 08/31/2010
Last Updated: 11/12/2018

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I spoke to my niece today, who is getting ready to go back to work after a generous maternity leave. But her second child is not sleeping any better than her first and the poor girl is so sleep-deprived that she's worried about being able to keep her eyes open at work.  I thought back to those days, when I had two pretty bad sleepers myself, and reassured her that the sleepless nights will soon be a thing of the past.

And then, after I hung up the phone, it hit me. Sleepless nights might be – for some random moments – a thing of the past but really, who am I kidding? Never mind the babies who grow up to be little kids and have little-kid nightmares; then there are the little kids who grow up to be teenagers and keep you up at night with worry. And then…perimenopause and menopause hit and we're right back where we started.

Sleepless nights.

So, why does that happen? I turned to Dr. Eric Braverman to shed some light on the subject. He believes that lack of sleep is one of the great age accelerators, prematurely aging your brain as well as your body. He's the author of the book, Younger You, and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Q. So many women experience changes in their sleep around mid-life, especially in the pre-and peri-menopause years. Why is that? Are hormones to blame?
A. For many, menopause actually begins around age 35 (now referred to as peri-menopause) and it can take as many as ten to fifteen years before it is completed. Hormonal imbalances can start even earlier when brain stress is high. When your hormones are imbalanced, your equilibrium is off: you're cranky, moody and your sleep is going to be affected.

Q. Is getting your "beauty sleep" a myth? Or is it true that a lack of sleep can age you faster?
A. Beauty sleep is true! Growth hormone stimulates growth, cell reproduction and regeneration, and can thus slow the aging process. And nearly 50 percent of growth hormone secretion happens during the third and fourth REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep stages, which occur later in the night.

Sleep is the easiest way to become younger: poor sleep affects your thinking and response time, and creates attention disturbances and impaired memory. The body senses sleep loss as a "stress-inducing" state, which raises levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones also regulate blood pressure; when these hormone levels are chronically elevated, blood pressure becomes more difficult to control, leading to a higher risk of heart disease.

Q. What about the amount of sleep we get – is it true that the requirements diminish with age?

A. No. Most adults need seven or eight hours of sleep a night – and this is also true for people aged 65 or older. But as we get older, we might have more trouble sleeping. Older adults might get sleepy earlier in the evening, but they might wake up very early in the morning and then be unable to go back to sleep.

Q. Do you advise using a sleep aid, like Ambien? Or perhaps you have other, more natural, tips.
A. There are a number of natural products that may help with sleeping problems. These include nutritional supplements (like 5-HTP, GABA, Magnesium, Melatonin, Tryptophan) and herbs (like Chamomile, Hops, Passionflower, St. John’s Wort, Valerian).

If you wake in the middle of the night and then have trouble falling back to sleep, try fast-acting sublingual melatonin or liquid herbal extracts; I recommend keeping them by your bedside. Alternatively, you could try a 2-stage melatonin, where half releases at bedtime and the remainder releases hours later.

Other treatments include psychotherapy and exercise. Exposure to full-spectrum light during the day can reset the body's biological clock (circadian rhythm), allowing for greater release of melatonin by the pineal gland at night. I also recommend meditation, yoga, acupuncture or aromatherapy with something calming, like lavender.

Using a sleep aid like Ambien is okay for the short-term, as long as you don’t require them on a regular basis.

This Matters> Don't forget to look for those hidden sleep-stealers: lights, electronic devices, worry, late-night emailing, phone calls, television (especially things like the news – where you rarely hear anything that doesn't produce anxiety) or a glass of wine (which will lull you off to sleep – at first – but then backfire and cause you to wake in the middle of the night).

You might also be interested in reading:
Sleep Better Starting Tonight
Do You Sleep to Dream or Dream of Sleep?


I don't have trouble getting to sleep, but if I wake up at 4am, I'm awake. Sigh.

Call me next time...'cause I'll be up, too, no doubt!

Uh-oh. "Lack of sleep is one of the great age accelerators, prematurely aging your brain as well as your body." At 63, I wake often during the night to pee, so this is n ot good news! I learned about circadian rhythm when I took care of my elderly mom. She had no sense whatsoever of what was the correct time to sleep. I guess I have that to look forward to as well .... To sleep, perchance to dream. Did not know about the two-stage melatonin. Will have to get some.

I just started having this and it's terrible. What works for me is to turn on a booklight and read for a few minutes to chase the worries out of my head. But that really bugs my partner! I honestly think this may lead to separate bedrooms!

Yes, a book in the middle of the night usually helps take your mind off those worries...but then of course, there's that person sleeping next to you to worry about.

The key to sleep for me is exercise. If I don't exercise that day, I have trouble sleeping.

Yes, but hopefully you don't exercise too close to bedtime, which can actually make it difficult to sleep!

sleep can be a great healer, I've found. exercise and meditation work best for me.

Kerry, Whenever my kids complained about feeling sick, i'd always insist they get extra sleep. And it always seemed to work. Indeed, a great healer.

I've started using melatonin a couple nights a week, and it's helping. If I take it every night, then I get really groggy during the day, but 1-2 times a week ... seems to help.

Glad that you find melatonin helpful, Roxanne. I hate to say that it has the opposite effect on me, and makes me jittery.

I prefer to sleep in a very dark room - if the clock is too bright it disturbs me! Also, I find it easier to drift off if I have a little settling-down time before I turn out the lights.

That's me, too...I have to settle down with a good book, and make sure I have my eyeshades on to ensure total darkness.

I'm so happy to be told to sleep more. I think Americans, in particular, are sleep-deprived -- and proud of it.

I find that I'm one of those--check the email before bed people and that it means I don't sleep as well. I'm trying to break the habit but having a tough time with it. I did run across this fascinating interview about why we feel compelled to email and the ways that technology is effecting our brains. You should take a look


I'm guilty of that, too, Kristen. That's a habit that is very hard to break (especially when I leave my blackberry by my bed. Can't believe I'm admitting that.)
Thanks for the npr link -I will definitely check that out!

The only time I ever took melotonin, I slept through thieves stealing our car from in front of our house on a night when the bedroom window was open. So I decided to stick with being a light sleeper.

Wow, Alisa.I can well understand why you would stay away melatonin, for sure. How frightening it put you into such a deep sleep - or maybe the thieves were very, very light on their feet (?!)

Don't have to tell me to get more sleep, as I'm semi-religious about making sure I get enough shut eye.

That takes a lot of discipline. I know I don't get enough, but never want to end the evening.

Love Alisa's melatonin story -- that stuff just gives me wacky dreams! I try (and often fail) to follow all the advice from the sleep experts. Like, right now, I'm in bed typing this comment -- that's a FAIL -- for good sleep hygiene!

I've yet to be helped by melatonin - I get crazy dreams from it, too - which makes me a very entertaining person the next morning!

Thank you so much for these tips! Very timely for me as I've gotten only 5 hours of sleep a night for the past few nights while dealing with jet lag. My husband takes melatonin with great success whenever he flies internationally; I didn't realize it could be helpful for middle-age sleep deprivation issues as well.

On behalf of Jennifer:

Not sure I want to know how BAD not sleeping is for me, since I've been up since 4:00 this morning and tend to wake up at night, every night, even when the baby doesn't wake me. Melatonin doesn't work, at all. But maybe I'll try some of the other herbs he mentioned... Thanks for this excellent and informative interview, though, even if my own beauty sleep is elusive.

I know it goes against everything science tells us, but I HAVE to fall asleep watching tv - usually a movie I've seen a million times, so my brain focuses on the words it knows by heart instead of the many nagging thoughts bouncing around in my brain. I can NEVER sleep in hotel rooms where the tv doesn't have a sleep timer.

In your experience,are some movies better for inducing sleep than others? Maybe the movie, "Midnight Express?"


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