Here’s an interesting myth for you: do older people need less sleep?
This is a really interesting question I’ve seen floating around lately. One thing’s for sure though— it’s much harder to enjoy your golden years if you’re exhausted and sleep-deprived all the time. Thankfully there are ways to help you get a better night’s rest as you get older, but is there any truth to this myth?
Before I answer that question though, let’s take a look at why older adults may have trouble sleeping in the first place.
Why Do Older Adults Have Trouble Sleeping?
As an older adult, you may have unique sleep problems that you didn’t have in your younger years. Your sleep patterns can change pretty significantly as you age— this has always been the case. As a kid, you needed 9-12 hours each night, as a teenager you needed 8-10, and then as an adult, you needed 7-9 hours.
A few sleep changes you may experience as you continue to age include:
- Shorter sleep duration, or excessive sleep
- More daytime naps, and less nighttime sleep
- Disturbed sleep during the night, or increased nocturnal awakenings
According to a study published by the Sleep Medicine Clinics, healthy older adults are actually less likely to report sleep problems, but the causes of their sleep problems are created by multiple factors, like:
- Shifts in hormone and melatonin levels
- Changes in their circadian rhythm
- Sleep pattern changes, like those listed above
These changes occur naturally as you age. However, your brain’s natural aging can end up hurting your sleep quality also. An aging Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN)— the part of the brain that regulates your circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle— can disrupt your sleep cycle and affect your ability to get the healthy sleep you need as you get older.
Besides an aging brain, there are other health factors that can make it harder for you to sleep at night. Some of these include:
- Nighttime disturbances such as pain, or getting up to use the bathroom
- Sleep disorders like insomnia or sleep apnea
- Conditions like restless legs syndrome (RLS), periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), or REM sleep behavior disorder
- Certain medications you may be taking— more on this later
- Reduced physical activity or a more sedentary lifestyle
So with all that in mind, let’s finally answer the question I presented earlier in the article.
Do Older People Need Less Sleep?
Put simply, no— this is a myth. Even as you’re getting older, you still have largely the same sleep needs that you’ve had throughout adulthood.
According to the National Institute on Aging, seniors still need 7-9 hours of sleep per night like most adults do, but the biological changes their bodies go through can make getting adequate sleep difficult. Of course, it’s just as important to get a good night’s sleep as a senior as it was earlier in life.
Getting too little sleep isn’t the only concern that you need to keep in mind as you get older— getting too much sleep can be a problem too. New research finds that both short and long sleep duration in older adults are associated with cognitive impairment, depressive symptoms, and even Alzheimer’s Disease.
Short sleep duration is linked with a greater amount of amyloid beta in your brain. Amyloid beta is a protein that can potentially build up in your brain and disrupt brain cell activity. When this occurs, your cognitive function suffers and you begin to experience the memory loss and mental difficulties associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
While the cognitive impact on short sleepers was consistent with signs of Alzheimer’s, long sleepers did not show the same levels of cognitive decline. That being said, sleeping too much can be a sign of other issues.
Long sleepers showed signs of possible underlying conditions, such as heart disease, affecting their rest that were not present in the short-sleeping group. In turn, these conditions impacted their sleep quality, prompting them to sleep longer to “catch up” from their poor sleep. When combined with poor sleep quality, long sleep duration can contribute to signs of cognitive decline.
Getting proper sleep at night helps keep you healthy and alert. Insufficient sleep in older adults can increase the risk of falls, accidents, and injury. Unfortunately, seniors are more likely to suffer from sleep disorders too— so what can be done to help you get the restful sleep you need?
Sleep Tips for Seniors
Getting better sleep as an older adult doesn’t have to be an ordeal. Check out my 7 tips to help you get better rest as you age— you can even try some of these before you go to bed tonight!
1. Create and Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule
Poor sleep habits will almost guarantee lackluster sleep, while good sleep habits will lead to better sleep. Following a consistent sleep schedule is one of the most important things you can do to make sure you get the sleep you need each night.
If you’re retired, you may not have a lot of structure to your day, or you may not follow a set schedule. If anything, you should definitely have a set time for when you go to bed each night, and for when you wake up each morning.
Training your body to sleep and wake at these times will help you fall asleep easier each night and wake up feeling more refreshed each morning. You need to do this every day though— even on the weekends.
It’s also important to practice good sleep hygiene. Basically, sleep hygiene is any good habit you practice before you go to bed each night. Some examples of good sleep hygiene include:
- Avoiding large meals, caffeine, or alcohol at least a few hours before bed
- Giving yourself plenty of time to complete your day’s to-do list before bed
- Giving yourself time to relax after finishing your evening to-do’s
- Putting your electronic devices away at least an hour before bedtime so they don’t hurt your sleep quality
2. Don’t Nap Too Late In The Day
A daytime nap can help you get through the afternoon if you’re feeling worn out long before bedtime, but it’s important to nap at the right time for best results.
A few benefits of napping include:
- Increased alertness and stamina
- Reduced stress
- A stronger immune system
The best time to nap each day is between 1:00 and 3:00 each afternoon. This is because this time frame syncs with your circadian rhythm’s natural sleep cues, and can counteract the fatigue that you may feel after lunchtime.
Make sure not to nap for too long though— you don’t want to nap any longer than 90 minutes. Napping for too long can throw off your natural sleep rhythm and hurt your ability to fall asleep at your normal bedtime.
3. Exercise At Least 4 Hours Before Bedtime
Staying active is key to a healthy lifestyle, especially once you’re over age 55. Physical activity can help you keep your body and your brain healthy, can help manage chronic conditions, and can help improve balance and stability. It’s also great for your sleep.
Even if you’re not as limber as you used to be, there are plenty of exercises you can do to keep yourself active, healthy, and sleeping well. Give some of these a try if you’re not sure where to start:
- Going for daily walks around the block or at a local park
- Swimming or water exercises
- Tai Chi
4. Don’t Stay In Bed If You Can’t Sleep
If you can’t sleep, staying in bed is one of the worst things you can do. If you wake up during the night or have a hard time falling asleep at all, get out of bed and do something small to take your mind off sleeping for a while. Here are a few of my suggestions:
- If you are able, walk quietly around the house. Some light movement can help get you ready for sleep without giving you too much energy.
- Write any thoughts or emotions you have in a journal.
- Focus on relaxation rather than sleep. Stressing about sleep will only make getting back to it more difficult.
You can do any of these as long as you need to help you feel ready for sleep again. Make sure you do this in low light also.
Alternatively, I also recommend my two-part Sleep Doctor PM formula. The first spray is designed to help you fall asleep easily, and the second can help you get back to sleep if you wake up during the night. And unlike other sleep aids, there’s no excessive sleepiness or grogginess the next day.
5. Short-Term Behavioral Therapy
Short-term behavioral therapy can be highly effective in treating seniors with insomnia. Working with a group of 79 senior men and women, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh set out to see how effective this treatment would be for older people suffering from insomnia. The therapy sessions focused on helping participants create sleep routines based on four goals:
- Reducing the total time each person stayed in bed
- Getting out of bed at the same time each day
- Participants only going to bed when they were tired
- Not staying in bed unless participants were sleeping
Participants were separated into two groups: both groups participated in the behavioral therapy, with one group also receiving individual counseling sessions, while the other did not.
Both groups saw improvements in their sleep— but the group that received additional counseling saw much more significant improvement. 55 percent of these participants were even able to eliminate their insomnia entirely, and keep it away!
So if you’re struggling with insomnia, this may definitely be worth trying.
For more information about the study, check out my article: Can Short-Term Behavioral Therapy Help Older Adults with Insomnia?
6. Talk to Your Doctor About Any Prescriptions That Could be Keeping You Awake
There are a lot of common medications that can cause insomnia. Among them include:
- Beta-blockers, including those that treat high blood pressure
- Dopamine agonists, including those that treat Parkinson’s Disease and restless legs syndrome
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), including antidepressants
- Benzodiazepine medications including Xanax, Valium, or Klonopin
If you believe that your prescriptions may be sabotaging your sleep, get in touch with your doctor. They can help you make any changes in your prescription schedule or offer alternatives that can both help you sleep and ensure you maintain any treatment you require.
Note: Do not stop taking any medication, change your dosage, or change your medication schedule without consulting your doctor first.
7. Sleep Safely
It’s important to take any precautions needed to ensure your health and safety each night, especially if you live alone or have limited mobility.
Before you go to bed each night, make sure you’ve done the following:
- Reduce any tripping hazards or fire hazards in your bedroom, especially if you have to get up and use the bathroom during the night.
- Keep a light source, such as a table lamp or a flashlight, within reach if you need to get up. A night light is a good idea too if it won’t keep you or your bed partner awake. Low lumen motion-activated night lights can be an effective alternative as well.
- Keep a phone near the bed if you ever need to call for help. Either a landline or a cell phone will work— just be sure a cell phone won’t keep you awake with any notifications, or distract you before bed.
Worried About Sleep Disorders? When to Seek Help
Sleep disorders like insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are common in senior citizens. If you’re not sure if your sleep disturbances are caused by a disorder, it’s a good idea to get checked. Talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist to get started.
Signs you may have a sleep disorder include:
- Increased sleep onset time— or taking 30 minutes or more to fall asleep each night
- Waking up during the night
- Waking up too early each morning
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Loud snoring, or signs of breathing cessation during sleep like choking or gasping
- Consistent sleep deprivation
If you’re not sure where to find an accredited sleep expert or sleep center near you, this tool from The American Academy of Sleep Medicine can help.
The myth that older people need less sleep is just that— a myth. In reality, seniors need as much sleep as they always did during adulthood, but their changing bodies can make getting the sleep they need difficult.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if you’re not as spry as you used to be, it’s possible to get a good night’s sleep if you take good care of yourself. Give some of my sleep tips a try, and you may find yourself sleeping like a baby, even in your golden years.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor