Summary The decline in sleep quality that often accompanies aging is thought to be the consequence of alterations in both circadian and homeostatic processes widely assumed to be responsible for sleep/wake regulation. A number of experimental approaches have been used to examine various aspects of age-related sleep changes, but none has examined spontaneous sleep across the entire 24-h day. Using the ‘disentrainment’ protocol, we studied such sleep in young, middle-aged and older adults. All subjects exhibited polyphasic sleep patterns, characterized by relatively short intervals of both sleep and waking. Whereas, the average duration of major nighttime sleep was significantly shorter in middle-aged and older subjects than in young adults, daytime napping was essentially unaffected by age. Comparisons of sleep and circadian variables between age groups suggest differential effects on sleep of the two regulatory processes, with changes in homeostatic drive preceding those of the circadian component. These findings add to a surprisingly scant literature on the longitudinal decline in sleep quality associated with aging.