Do People Need Less Sleep As They Age?


We all look forward to a good night’s sleep. It allows our body to rest and restore its energy levels. Without enough sleep, we can become grumpy, irritable, inattentive and more prone to accidents. Like food and water, adequate sleep is essential to good health and quality of life.

How Sleep Works

There are two types of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. NREM sleep consists of four stages, ranging from light to deep sleep. We cycle through these stages approximately every 90 minutes, and then we go into REM sleep, the most active stage when dreaming often occurs. During REM sleep, our eyes move back and forth beneath the eyelids and our muscles become immobile.

Researchers believe that two body systems—the sleep-wake process and our unique circadian or biological clock—regulate sleep. These systems program our bodies to feel sleepy at night and awake during the day.

The sleep-wake process works by balancing the amount of sleep a person needs with the amount of time they spend awake. Our circadian clock is a 24-hour body rhythm that is affected by sunlight. It regulates the production of hormones like melatonin, which is secreted during the night and promotes sleep, and manages other processes like body temperature. Resting at a time that is in sync with this rhythm promotes good sleep quality.

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How Sleep Habits Change with Age

According to the National Institute on Aging, sleep needs change naturally throughout a person’s lifetime. For example, it is common knowledge that children and adolescents need more sleep than adults. Interestingly, though, older adults need about the same amount of sleep as their younger counterparts—seven to nine hours each night.

Unfortunately, many older adults get less sleep than they need. One reason is that they often have a difficult time falling asleep. A study of adults over 65 found that 13 percent of men and 36 percent of women take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep each night.

Seniors often sleep less deeply and wake up more frequently throughout the night, which may be why they are prone to napping during the day. Sleep schedules may change with age, too. Many older adults tend to get drowsy earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning.

There are many possible explanations for these changes. Production of melatonin may wane with age, and seniors may become more sensitive to disruptive changes in their environment, such as light or noise.

Is Poor Sleep a Normal Part of Aging?

Older adults may also have health issues that can affect their sleep quality. Researchers have noted that people without major medical or psychiatric conditions report better sleep. To complicate things further, poor sleep can contribute to additional health issues, such as depression, attention and memory problems, excessive daytime sleepiness, and an increase in nighttime falls. Many people with sleep issues begin using over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids, which can be problematic as well.

Most believe that poor sleep is a normal part of aging, but it is not. In fact, many healthy older adults report few or no sleep problems. Sleep patterns change as we age, but frequent sleep disturbances and persistent fatigue are not a normal part of aging. If you or a loved one are having trouble sleeping, it’s time to make an appointment with a doctor or sleep specialist.

Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Sleep quality directly affects one’s quality of life. Here are some suggestions to help seniors rest better:

  • Follow a regular schedule. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time, even on weekends. Sticking to a routine helps keep the body’s circadian clock consistent.
  • Minimize naps. Try to nap only when you must. Excessive sleep during the day can keep you from falling and staying asleep at night.
  • Begin an exercise regimen. Regular physical activity has been shown to improve sleep quality. For best results, finish working out at least three hours before bedtime so your body has time to unwind.
  • Soak up some sun. Try to get some natural light in the afternoon each day. Just 10 or 15 minutes outside can be beneficial, but remember to wear proper sun protection.
  • Watch what you eat. Avoid consuming caffeine late in the day, and try not to eat large meals close to bedtime. If you like to eat before bed, opt for a warm beverage and/or a small snack.
  • Avoid bad habits. Don’t drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes to help you sleep. Even small amounts of alcohol can seem to help with falling asleep, but it actually makes it harder to remain asleep. Smoking is dangerous for many reasons, including the hazard of falling asleep with a lit cigarette. From purely a sleep standpoint, the nicotine in cigarettes is a stimulant and interferes with rest much like caffeine does.
  • Create a safe and comfortable place to sleep. Each person has their own opinion on what makes a bedroom conducive for sleep. Most prefer a dark, cool and quiet room. Many people are particular about their mattress, pillows and bedding, and some sleep better with ambient noise. Embrace these preferences and do what you can to meet these needs and promote good sleep.
  • Develop a bedtime routine. Do the same things each night to tell your body that it’s time to wind down. Some people watch the evening news, read a book or soak in a warm bath.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleeping. After turning off the light, give yourself about 15 minutes to fall asleep. If you are still awake and not feeling drowsy, get out of bed and do something low key, like reading. When you get sleepy, go back to bed and try again.
  • Don’t worry about it. Anxiety over getting good rest can actually prevent you from falling and staying asleep. Some people find that playing mental games helps them nod off. For example, think black—a black cat on a black velvet pillow on a black corduroy sofa in a black room, etc. Or, tell yourself it’s five minutes before you have to get up and you’re just trying to get a few extra winks.
  • Know when to see the doctor. Being so tired during the day that one cannot function is not normal. If this lasts for more than a few weeks, it’s time to make an appointment with a doctor or a sleep disorders specialist.

Source: The National Institutes of Health (NIH),

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