elderly man sitting on edge of bed in pajamas
Sean Cate
Sean Cate
September 15, 2023 ·  5 min read

Why Do We Wake Up Earlier As We Age?

As we age, our sleep patterns undergo significant changes, often leading to earlier awakenings. On the whole, research has noticed a trend towards younger people getting more sleep and sleeping in later, while those who are older wake up early and get a lower quality of sleep. This article explores the various factors contributing to this phenomenon and its implications for older adults’ sleep quality and overall well-being.

Understanding Why Others Wake Up Early1

Insomnia involves difficulty falling asleep or returning to sleep after awakening, impacting daytime function. Normal awakenings during the night may occur, but early morning awakenings can pose challenges due to reduced sleep drive. Waking up early in the morning can be a perplexing issue for many older individuals. 

This phenomenon often raises questions about its causes and effects, especially in the context of aging. Aging itself can bring about various conditions that affect sleep patterns, such as circadian rhythm changes, altered melatonin production, advanced sleep phase syndrome, dementia, untreated sleep apnea, and mood disorders like depression.

Insomnia, a common sleep disorder among older adults, plays a significant role in these early awakenings. While not all who wake up early suffer from insomnia, it’s essential to comprehend the nature of this sleep disturbance and the factors that contribute to it.

The Role of Circadian Rhythms and Melatonin in Aging2

Circadian rhythms, influenced by light, regulate sleep-wake patterns. Aging often leads to reduced melatonin production, affecting sleep signals. Advanced sleep phase syndrome (ASPS) and irregular sleep-wake rhythm are common in older adults, causing them to wake up early in the morning.

Beyond the sleep drive, circadian rhythms are crucial in determining our sleep-wake patterns. These rhythms, governed by an area in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, help coordinate sleep with natural periods of darkness. Light, especially morning sunlight, strongly influences these rhythms and reinforces wakefulness.

However, in older individuals, the brain often produces less melatonin, a hormone that aids in sleep regulation. Decreased melatonin production may be due to changes in the pineal gland or reduced light perception. Older adults are more prone to circadian rhythm sleep disorders like ASPS and irregular sleep-wake rhythm, both of which can lead to them inadvertently waking up early.

Blaming Sleep Needs and Sleep Apnea in Older People

Sleep needs change with age, leading to altered sleep duration and wake times. Retirement and lifestyle adjustments may contribute to irregular sleep patterns. Sleep apnea, prevalent among older individuals, frequently causes early morning awakenings.

Beyond changes in circadian rhythms and melatonin production, sleep needs undergo transformations as individuals age. Beyond the age of 65, the average sleep need decreases from 7 to 9 hours to 7 to 8 hours. Retirement can play a role in this change, as individuals may abandon regular wake times, impacting their circadian rhythms and sleep drives.

Moreover, obstructive sleep apnea becomes more common among older people, particularly women, after menopause. This condition, associated with snoring and daytime sleepiness, can lead to unwanted awakenings at night and potentially early morning.

Considering Mood and Other Environmental Causes

Mood disorders like depression and anxiety often coincide with early awakenings. Anxiety can exacerbate insomnia, making it harder to return to sleep, and environmental factors, including noise, light, and temperature, may prompt awakenings.

Mood disorders, especially depression, are strongly linked to early morning awakenings. Depression is also associated with sleep apnea, suggesting an underlying sleep-related breathing disorder. Anxiety can worsen insomnia, as an anxious or frustrated response to early morning awakenings can hinder returning to sleep. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) can be beneficial in improving this situation.

Aging Changes in Sleep Patterns3

Aging reduces total sleep time, increases nighttime awakenings, and earlier morning wake-ups. The transition between sleep and wakefulness becomes abrupt in older adults. Factors like nocturia, anxiety, and chronic illnesses contribute to disrupted sleep. Aging causes various alterations in sleep patterns. Most notably, older individuals often experience reduced total sleep time, more frequent nighttime awakenings, and earlier morning wake-ups. This transition between sleep and wakefulness can be abrupt, making them feel like lighter sleepers than when they were younger. Nocturia, anxiety, and chronic illnesses further contribute to sleep disturbances in older adults, exacerbating early morning awakenings.

Read: The Pros and Cons of Sleeping With a Fan

Effects of Aging on Sleep Quality and Health

Poorer sleep quality, reduced deep sleep, and more awakenings affect memory and cognitive function, but afternoon naps compensate for fragmented sleep but seldom include deep sleep. Aging leads to a decline in specialized brain cells regulating sleep, further disrupting sleep patterns and memory. These changes in sleep patterns during aging can have significant effects on sleep quality and overall health. Poorer sleep quality, characterized by reduced deep sleep and more awakenings, can impair memory and cognitive function.

To compensate for fragmented sleep, many older adults take afternoon naps. While naps can help alleviate some of the effects of sleep disruption, they typically do not include deep sleep.
Furthermore, as individuals age, they experience a decline in the number of specialized brain cells that regulate sleep. This further disrupts sleep patterns and can negatively impact memory.

Lifelong Sleep Changes

Sleep duration gradually decreases from infancy to old age, with older adults requiring less sleep.

A 70-year-old’s sleep often consists of shorter, interrupted periods, leading to grogginess upon waking.
Sleep patterns evolve throughout one’s life. Infants sleep up to 20 hours per day, but by age four, this decreases to about 12 hours. During adolescence, individuals typically get around 9 hours of sleep each night.

By the time people reach 35 years old, most sleep for about 8 hours a night. As individuals continue to age, their sleep requirements decrease. For instance, a 70-year-old may need just 7 hours of sleep each night. However, the key difference lies in the way sleep is experienced. Older adults often have sleep periods that are shorter and more frequently interrupted, leading to feelings of grogginess upon waking.

Sleep difficulties in older adults may result from treatable conditions like muscle spasms, depression, anxiety, and sleep apnea.

Chronic conditions such as arthritis can also disrupt sleep, warranting proper diagnosis and management.
It’s essential to recognize that not all sleep difficulties in older adults are solely due to the aging process. Various treatable conditions, including muscle spasms, depression, anxiety, and sleep apnea, can contribute to sleep disturbances.
Chronic health conditions like arthritis can also disrupt sleep patterns. Therefore, it’s crucial for healthcare professionals to perform thorough evaluations and diagnose and manage underlying issues rather than attributing all sleep problems to age-related changes.

In conclusion, early morning awakenings in older adults are influenced by a complex interplay of factors, including changes in circadian rhythms, sleep needs, and the presence of underlying health conditions.

Keep Reading: A new hotel trend that puts you to sleep — literally


  1. What Causes Waking up Too Early Among Older People.” Very Well Health. Brandon Peters, MD.
  2. Here’s why it’s harder to sleep as we get older.” Business Insider. Erin Brodwin. October 7, 2014
  3. Aging changes in sleep.” Medline Plus