Why Do Adults Wake Up Earlier As They Get Older?

Have you ever wondered why you are no longer able to sleep in like you did when you were younger?-We do too!

There are plenty of jokes about older adults waking up before the sun, there’s no doubt about it. And, it seems that this joke is inspired by a true event: the wake-sleep cycle isn’t only a part of our genetics, but it’s also a part of the natural aging processes. 

With age come changes on an internal and external level, contributing to the sleep changes we experience as we age. 

According to Cindy Lusting, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, like most of the things that change with age, there’s not only one reason but rather many that are interconnected when it comes to sleep quality and sleep patterns. 

Why Do We Wake Up Earlier As We Age According to Experts 

Like other parts of our physical and mental health, our brain’s responsiveness reduces as we age.

According to the director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at the University of Arizona Health Sciences, Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy, the brain’s wiring is probably not sensing and responding to the inputs as well as it previously did because it’s aging. 

These inputs are sunlight, sunset, meals, physical activity, social cues, etc. Dr. Parthasarathy explains that they refer to these inputs as time givers because they give time to the brain or help it sense where it is in the 24-hour circadian cycle.

For example, in a younger person, dinner time may help their brain understand that bedtime is in a couple of hours. On the other hand, this connection may not occur in an older person.

The nerves that give our brain time cues undergo the same level of degeneration that the brain does. This inability to sense time cues is one of the reasons why older people become tired before their kids or grandkids. So, this means they’ll wake up fully rested and earlier than them. 

Lustig also notes that the earlier waking up may also have to do with the vision changes that come with age. Namely, they lower the intensity of the degree of light stimulation that the brain gets. This is important for setting the circadian clock and ensuring it works optimally. 

This is particularly the case for people who have cataracts, a common eye condition that affects more than 50 percent of Americans aged 80 and up, according to the NIH. This condition is linked with double vision, blurry vision, and poor eyesight.

With cataracts, the evening light doesn’t go into the eyes so the sunset is earlier for the brain than when it sets. As there’s less light in the eyes due to cataract issues, the body releases melatonin, a sleep hormone, earlier. 

On the other hand, the melatonin begins to increase after sunset in younger people. In people with cataracts whose brains think that the sunset is earlier than it is, they become tired sooner in the evening, go to bed sooner, and wake up sooner.

Lustig notes that a cataract removal surgery may help better sleep quality and sleep duration by improving the light cues. 

How to Enjoy Quality Sleep As You Age 

If you’re dealing with this problem, you should, according to Parthasarathy, not put away screens just yet. Expose yourself to bright lights later on in the evening and go for a walk before sunset, read a book on an iPad, or watch TV on a bright screen.

These bright lights will inform the brain that the sun hasn’t set yet and hold off the production of melatonin. If you want to stay up a little later and sleep in later, try doing these activities for half an hour or an hour before sunset. 

The exact time of exposure to the bright lights depends and you may have to try different durations before you find the best option for you. Generally, aim for around two hours for exposure.