20 Ways Your Sleep Changes After 40, According to Experts


Waking up exhausted after a night of lackluster sleep is a rite of passage—and in some cases, an all too frequent occurrence—for many adults. In fact, according to 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately one in three Americans doesn't get an adequate amount of sleep on any given night. And if you are over 40, restful, restorative sleep—even after eight hours in bed—can sometimes prove even more elusive, with a range of age-related factors conspiring to keep you from waking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. If you're finding that every day starts on the wrong side of the bed, read on to discover what experts have to say about how your sleep changes after you turn 40.

You spend less time in a state of deep sleep

Not feeling rested even after eight hours of sleep? Changes in your sleep cycle could be to blame.

Even if you're still getting the same amount of sleep you did in your younger years, "older people spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than deeper stages," explains Nate Watson, MD, a sleep expert and advisory board member at SleepScore Labs.

And you wake up more easily

You used to be able to sleep with a construction crew jackhammering outside your window, but now a pin drop could wake you up—what gives?

"Sleep architecture changes with age, meaning aging comes with lighter sleep, reduced sleep efficiency, [and] increased awakenings at night," explains neurobiologist Verena Senn, PhD, a sleep expert with Emma.

But you have an easier time falling asleep

Luckily, even if you're waking up more easily, you'll likely find it easier to hit the hay, too.

Due to the shift in a person's chronotype—the behavior associated with an individual's particular circadian rhythm—with age, it's easier to fall asleep, resulting in "better alignment between weekends and weekdays, which is generally healthy, leading to increased productivity during the day," explains Senn.

You start waking up earlier

Even folks who rarely got out of bed before noon in their teens and 20s may find themselves becoming early birds after 40.

Watson explains that the average person's chronotype tends to change with age—in other words, your body desires an earlier wake-up time.

And falling asleep earlier

Does 9 p.m. sound like a reasonable bedtime to you these days? Chalk it up to a consequence of the aging process.

"Our circadian rhythms may begin to phase advance with age, meaning we may start going to bed earlier," says Terry Cralle, a registered nurse and sleep expert with the Better Sleep Council.

You have fewer nightmares

Those monsters chasing you through your dreams at night might just be a thing of the past by the time you hit 40.

"We tend to have less nightmares at the age of 40 compared to age 20," says Senn, who notes that this is particularly true among women. In fact, according to a 1992 study published in Psychological Aging, older adults were found to report having nightmares one-fifth as often as college students.

You need less sleep in general

For some people over 40, a full night of sleep may look a lot shorter than it did just a decade or so earlier.

"When you were a teenager, you were growing. That takes a lot of sleep," says James Cobb, RN, founder of The Dream Recovery System. And if you've stopped working, or at least are working fewer hours, you may notice your sleep becoming more condensed because you are experiencing less daily physical and mental stress, he says.

You get up at night to use the bathroom more frequently

Find yourself running to the bathroom in the middle of what would have otherwise been a restful night of sleep? You're not alone.

"As you age, you're more likely to experience being woken up in the middle of the night with the need to urinate," Cobb says. Everything from diuretic medication to conditions like prostate hypertrophy and decreased bladder capacity can increase this urgency.

You need a softer mattress

That sturdy futon you spent your 20s sleeping on just won't cut it after you hit the big 4-0.

"Changes in weight, skin, subcutaneous fat, muscle, and joints" can all make it difficult to become comfortable during sleep, says Cralle. His recommendation? Opting for a mattress with a plush top layer that offers adequate support to change positions during the night.

You're more likely to experience pain that prevents you from sleeping

Those aches and pains that you used to be able to deal with may start to be harder to ignore as you age—and in many cases, they may keep you awake.

"Aging directly leads to a general decline in health for many people [including] arthritis and chronic inflammation" that can make it difficult to sleep, according to Mark Burhenne, DDS, founder of AsktheDentist.com.

And you're more likely to wake up with pain

Even if you went to bed feeling fine, you might find yourself feeling worse for wear by the time your alarm goes off in the morning.

"As you age, your body recovers slower," explains Pittsburgh chiropractor Alex Tauberg. "When you were young it may have been no big deal to sleep in an uncomfortable position, but once you start getting older your body is not able to recover from [these] positions as quickly." To combat this discomfort, Tauberg recommends springing for a high-quality mattress and pillow.

Your mouth gets dry
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Burhenne explains that saliva production decreases with age, which can lead to that unpleasantly parched sensation. Worse yet, "If you have a very dry airway and it touches it when it collapses, it's more likely to stay closed, worsening apneas," he explains.

Your body produce less melatonin

While your body may have been able to transition seamlessly between sleep cycles when you were younger, this becomes a more difficult proposition after 40.

"When one reaches 40, the body experiences a decrease in melatonin production, which will cause you to experience more fragmented sleep, making you wake up more often during the night," explains certified sleep science coach Liz Brown, founder of Sleeping Lucid.

You're more likely to snore

If you've noticed that your partner's sleep has become a whole lot noisier as they've gotten older, you're not imagining things.

"As we age, our palate and throat muscles lose their tone and may become a potential obstacle for the airflow, thus causing snoring," says certified sleep science coach Alex Savy, founder of Sleeping Ocean.

And your risk of sleep apnea increases
Shutterstock / Brian Chase

When you're over 40, your risk of developing sleep apnea—a condition that causes you to stop breathing while asleep—increases significantly. According to naturopath Kasey Nichols, NMD, this can be attributed to changes to the anatomical structure of the neck and soft palate, as well as being overweight.

"Being overweight is a significant risk factor for developing sleep apnea, and two of the primary lifestyle changes recommended for this condition are to lose weight and stop smoking," says Nichols.

You need the room to be cool

Kicking off the covers is all too common an experience for many women over 40, with hot flashes becoming an issue for those entering perimenopause or menopause.

"They happen because the levels of estrogen drop during menopause," says Savy, who notes that this temperature-regulating hormone can cause body temperature to "increase and cause you discomfort."

And you sweat more during the night

Wanting to dial down the thermostat isn't the only major change for folks entering perimenopause or menopause—for many people, this life phase also means waking up drenched in sweat.

The hormonal changes associated with menopause "[don't] allow for the necessary decrease in body core temperature," says Senn, leading to pronounced night sweats.

Your risk of developing a sleep disorder increases

Even if sleep disorders like insomnia or sleepwalking haven't been a problem for you in the past, they may rear their ugly heads after 40.

"Older individuals have a higher incidence of sleep disorders and as such, sleep disorder screening and treatment is essential," says Cralle.

You body doesn't heal as well during sleep

The loss of time spent in deep sleep can have serious consequences for your physical health.

"Deep sleep is vital to muscle repair," explains certified sleep science coach Meg Riley with Sleep Junkie, who notes that this can mean injuries are less likely to heal in a timely manner.

And your brain doesn't either

Riley explains that since deep sleep is essential for brain function, a change in deep sleep duration can leave you feeling foggy. "Researchers are not exactly sure why this begins after 40 and continues to increase with aging, but it may be related to elevated levels of cortisol," she says.

In fact, a 2011 review of research published in Dementia & Neuropsychologia suggests that prolonged exposure to increases in cortisol can be detrimental to the memory capabilities of otherwise healthy older adults.