Age-related changes in the circadian and homeostatic regulation of human sleep

Chronobiol Int. 2006;23(1-2):461-74. doi: 10.1080/07420520500545813.


The reduction of electroencephalographic (EEG) slow-wave activity (SWA) (EEG power density between 0.75-4.5 Hz) and spindle frequency activity, together with an increase in involuntary awakenings during sleep, represent the hallmarks of human sleep alterations with age. It has been assumed that this decrease in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep consolidation reflects an age-related attenuation of the sleep homeostatic drive. To test this hypothesis, we measured sleep EEG characteristics (i.e., SWA, sleep spindles) in healthy older volunteers in response to high (sleep deprivation protocol) and low sleep pressure (nap protocol) conditions. Despite the fact that the older volunteers had impaired sleep consolidation and reduced SWA levels, their relative SWA response to both high and low sleep pressure conditions was similar to that of younger persons. Only in frontal brain regions did we find an age-related diminished SWA response to high sleep pressure. On the other hand, we have clear evidence that the circadian regulation of sleep during the 40 h nap protocol was changed such that the circadian arousal signal in the evening was weaker in the older study participants. More sleep occurred during the wake maintenance zone, and subjective sleepiness ratings in the late afternoon and evening were higher than in younger participants. In addition, we found a diminished melatonin secretion and a reduced circadian modulation of REM sleep and spindle frequency-the latter was phase-advanced relative to the circadian melatonin profile. Therefore, we favor the hypothesis that age-related changes in sleep are due to weaker circadian regulation of sleep and wakefulness. Our data suggest that manipulations of the circadian timing system, rather than the sleep homeostat, may offer a potential strategy to alleviate age-related decrements in sleep and daytime alertness levels.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging*
  • Biological Clocks
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Electroencephalography
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Melatonin
  • Middle Aged
  • Physiological Phenomena
  • Sleep Stages
  • Sleep*
  • Wakefulness


  • Melatonin