Why do older people wake so early?

I am an early riser — always have been. It may be the farm girl in me.

No chickens to feed or cows to milk, but there is this dog of ours who wants to go outside to pee about 5 a.m. When she comes back inside, she splays herself on her back, feet in the air and I, admittedly, give her a reinforcing tummy rub. By that time we are both open-eyed about the day ahead. I have shaped her waking/sleeping patterns and she has shaped mine.

But “early” keeps getting earlier, and I am curious as to why. I decided to do a little research.

I came across an online “knowledge-sharing” blog (www.quora.com) that asks two questions around this topic: “Why do older people wake up so early?” and “Are there biological reasons?”

The first respondent said: “The answer is clear. We know there’s not a lot of time left and we don’t want to miss a minute of it sleeping.”

That remark prompted my recall of a memorable line in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” "Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?”

Another respondent to the blog questions identified himself as a “clinical geriatrician” (a medical doctor specializing in elder health), and he had a whole list of reasons ranging from fragmented sleeping patterns and “less overall deep sleep” to medication use and environmental issues. He ended his response with, “Hope helpful. Best regards,” which I think is an unexpectedly lovely sentiment from a busy health provider.

Most experts seem to suggest that no matter what our age or sleep history; we rest better if we have a bedroom environment that can be defined as a “sleep sanctuary,” which means it’s cool, dark and quiet with a comfortable mattress and well-tested pillows. There should be no TV or technology of any kind nearby. I think that includes the back-lighted eBook and the cellphone charging on my nightstand.

“Sleep hygiene” is the word most frequently used when you’re examining this topic. The National Sleep Foundation defines it as “the habits and practices” that keep us well rested. The advice from those folks and just about everyone with expertise in this area is that any adult over the age of 18 needs 7-9 hours per night and, if a nap is needed, it should be limited to 20-30 minutes. No need to obsess over the fact that you’re on the low end of that recommended sleep range. Worrying about that could keep you up at night.

I left my sanctuary an hour ago and I am completely awake and receptive to learning more. I came across a term I had not heard before, “sleep maintenance insomnia,” which refers to difficulty staying asleep and waking too early. Apparently it’s a big problem, especially for aging women.

Harvard University’s website www.healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/ seems to have many answers, including the most practical approach of all, “Go to bed later.”

— Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus at Oregon State University and the executive director of Age-Friendly Innovators. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org

Share This Story