Updated at: 11-04-2022 - By: Jane

Most people’s sleep-wake cycles are dictated by the position of the sun. We awaken as the sun rises and the warmth rises. Melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, is secreted by the body when the hours of daylight shorten.

The suprachiasmatic nucleus, the brain’s master clock, keeps track of this daily cycle, which is known as the circadian rhythm (SCN). Sensory signals like light and temperature are used by the hypothalamus to instruct our bodies when it is time to sleep, eat or be most active.

Adolescence is a time when circadian rhythms are at their most advanced, and as we become older, they begin to revert to their earlier stages. For many elderly people, sleep disturbances stem from circadian rhythm changes.

How Do Our Circadian Rhythms Change with Age?

Circadian rhythms begin to advance between the ages of 60 and 65. As a result of this phase advance, older persons are better able to accomplish mental work in the morning and are more likely to fall asleep sooner at night. Throughout middle age, the circadian rhythm begins to vary by around half an hour every decade. Also, research reveals that older persons’ circadian rhythm timing is more delicate, which might lead to fitful sleep if they don’t get enough sleep at the right time.

How Circadian Rhythms Change as We Age | Sleep Foundation

What Does Sleep Look Like in Older Adults?

When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, most older folks need to go to bed about 7 p.m. and wake up around 3 or 4 a.m. As a result, many people delay their slumber by going to bed many hours later than they should. Because the body clock still kicks in at 3 a.m. and sends a wake-up signal, you’ll have trouble sleeping for the rest of the night.

When it comes to sleep quality, older persons have a lower percentage of deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and a higher percentage of light sleep. An elderly person will typically wake up three to four times a night since light sleep is less restful. Older people tend to wake up and fall asleep more abruptly than younger people, giving the impression that you’ve been awake for the majority of the night.

Insufficient sleep often necessitates taking a nap during the day. Taking a nap during the day, on the other hand, may make it more difficult to get to sleep at night. They set the stage for another night of sleeplessness by delaying bedtime.

Older folks, on average, receive less sleep than younger adults, despite the fact that their sleep requirements are the same. A typical night’s sleep for most older adults is six-and-a-half to seven hours, which falls short of the seven to eight hours suggested. This may be a problem for older persons, who may have a harder time adapting to new sleep patterns.

Sleep deprivation can make you tired, confused, and even depressed, symptoms which may be mistaken for dementia or other disorders. While it’s normal to experience sleep problems as you age, severe changes to your circadian rhythm may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

Impact on Sleep and Psychiatric Disorders

Deprivation of sleep can cause tiredness, confusion, and depression, which might be misinterpreted for dementia or other mental health issues. This may be an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, despite the fact that sleep issues are common as we become older.

There is growing recognition that circadian health, which is defined as robust ~24-hour rhythms that are stably and appropriately timed with respect to both the external light-dark cycle and social rhythms (eg, sleep times), is a key pillar of health. Human behavior and biological processes can be enhanced by taking place at the right time of the day or night. Indeed, mental health and circadian health are tightly entwined, and circadian interventions can improve mood and well-being, even in healthy people.

One of the most widely accepted pillars of good health, circadian health, is defined as stable 24-hour rhythms that are in sync with the external light-dark cycle and social rhythms (e.g., sleep times). Human behavior and biological processes can be enhanced by taking place at the right time of the day or night. Circadian interventions can have a positive effect even on healthy people’s mood and well-being, which is true.

One of the most widely accepted pillars of good health, circadian health, is described as stable 24-hour rhythms that are in sync with both the environmental light-dark cycle and social rhythms (e.g., sleep hours). This ensures that human behavior and biological processes are optimized by taking place at the optimal time. Circadian therapies can have a positive effect even on healthy people’s happiness and well-being.


During puberty, the body’s circadian rhythms change at a later point in the day (phase delay). Sex hormones are at least partially responsible for this, as other mammals have shown. Late-night activities such as staying up later and exposing oneself to more evening light move the clock’s time.

Due to the circadian clock’s extreme sensitivity to blue light, using blue-light emitting electronics close to the face late at night will cause a phase delay. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are more likely to occur in people with a later circadian clock and more “eveningness.” This may be a transdiagnostic risk factor.

How Circadian Rhythms Change as We Age | Sleep Foundation

There is a possibility that a patient has delayed sleep-wake phase disorder if they have persistent problems falling asleep or waking up at desired, often socially imposed earlier clock timings (DSWPD). Approximately 7% to 16% of adolescents and young adults are affected by DSWPD. Chronic sleep deprivation is a real problem when these later sleep onsets are combined with early school or work start hours. Sleep deprivation among adolescents and young adults is widely considered to be the worst in the country. During adolescence and early adulthood, substantial sleep and circadian disruptions may play a role in the genesis of many psychiatric diseases.


Circadian rhythms become more erratic as we age. With age, there is a gradual shift away from “eveningness” toward “morningness,” which occurs in the late teens or early twenties. Males and females have slightly different circadian cycles. An endogenous circadian period longer than 24 hours is present in the vast majority of healthy persons (about 70%). This means that, in order to keep up with the natural light-dark cycle, the majority of adults will have to shift earlier in the day. In spite of the fact that we spend more time indoors, the external light/dark cycle continues to influence our internal circadian clocks. In the face of socially required fixed wake times, later sunsets lead to later sleep onsets and shorter sleep lengths.

Chronic circadian disturbance was traditionally thought to affect primarily individuals who worked night shifts. Circadian rhythms are constantly adjusting to the constantly shifting light/dark cycle caused by shift work or irregular shifts. On days off, most shift employees want to sleep during socially acceptable nighttime hours, so even the most reliable permanent shifts can be a challenge. Because of this, shift employment is related with disrupted sleep and poor mental health (especially depressed symptoms). Patients with or at risk for mental health disorders should avoid shift employment if possible.

Recent studies have shown that variable sleep time is one of the most common forms of chronic circadian disruption. Poor mental and physical health is connected with uneven sleep time, which may be due in part to the circadian shift in response to the irregular light/dark cycle associated with it. “Social jet lag” is a subtype of irregular sleep timing that corresponds to transitions in sleep timings from work or school days to free days. On free days, sleep tends to drift back to more circadian-appropriate clock timings, whereas socially mandated job or school schedules tend to drive sleep to earlier clock times.

Depressive symptoms, increased drug usage and poorer physical health are linked to shifts in the middle of a person’s sleep between workdays (two hours or more) and non-workdays (less than two hours). Longitudinal investigations are needed to confirm the link between sleep apnea and mental health problems.


Circadian disturbance can be caused by a variety of reasons in the elderly. There has been a shift in the timing of circadian rhythms. The patient may have advanced sleep-wake phase disorder if he or she complains of falling asleep early in the evening and waking up early in the morning (ASWPD). People get less light exposure as they get older since they spend less time outside and their indoor lighting can be very dim.

A person’s vision gets cloudier as he or she ages because the lenses in his or her eyes yellow. Dementia can lead to an irregular sleep-wake cycle problem if the suprachiasmatic nucleus fails to function properly (ISWRD). In this case, the circadian rhythm is weaker and there are more sleep and wake cycles during the day and night.

The Science Behind Aging and Circadian Rhythms

It’s possible that the circadian rhythm shifts earlier as we age due to a combination of biological and environmental variables, but researchers are yet unsure of the cause.

There is some evidence that external cues for the circadian rhythm become less effective in later adulthood. Some clock genes, say the researchers, may go out of sync and be replaced by others that behave in a different manner.

According to mouse studies, researchers believe that the SCN in humans may also weaken, resulting to less noticeable changes in the circadian rhythm. As a result of their decreased production of melatonin at night, older persons may have a more difficult time distinguishing between sleep and wakefulness. As a result, you’ll get less restful sleep at night and be more tired during the day.

Many research have looked at how our exposure to light changes with age because light is such an important factor in the circadian rhythm. This may be because as we age, our eyes become less efficient at letting in short-wavelight, which is critical for maintaining our circadian rhythm. Perhaps we spend less time in the natural light and more time in weak artificial light, which is less effective at regulating the circadian rhythm. Cataract surgery appears to improve sleep quality by allowing more light into the eyes.

Residents at care facilities, who may spend less time outside in the sun and are less active, have additional factors to keep in mind. There may be issues with noise and light for adults in long-term facilities, especially those who are housed in a room with another person. Elderly people who dwell in a care facility are more prone to suffer from bad sleep than those who are more autonomous.

How To Cope With Changing Circadian Rhythms as We Age

When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep as you become older, shifting your sleep schedule sooner may be the most effective strategy. To get the best night’s sleep, stick to a regular bedtime and wakeup schedule.

It’s possible that getting more light in the daytime will improve your ability to sleep at night. Try to avoid getting too much light in the early morning hours if you like to sleep in a little longer. As an alternative, take a walk in the evening or employ light therapy at a later time. This can “trick” your body into postponing its bedtime by delaying the release of melatonin.

Over three in five admit to falling asleep at work in Ireland - Irish Mirror Online

Sleep Hygiene Tips for Older Adults

Creating a mental association between bed and sleep is a simple method to improve sleep. Experts suggest the following steps to improve your sleep:

  • The importance of maintaining a comfortable sleeping environment that is both dark and silent
  • Restricting or avoiding the consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco after lunch
  • In the evening, it is best to refrain from drinking or eating significant amounts of food.
  • limiting naps to no more than 30 minutes in length
  • Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet.
  • Exercise at least three times a week, ideally outside
  • An hour before going to sleep, turn off all electronic devices.
  • reserving the use of the bed solely for sex and sleep
  • If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something else.

Sleep disorders and other diseases such as diabetes, heart failure and prostate disorders should also be treated as a priority in order to improve your quality of life. Consider adjusting your prescription regimen in order to avoid disrupting your sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping, your doctor may recommend melatonin pills or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-I).

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