Truthfully, our twilight years are not the best for rest. In fact, older adults spend less time in the deeper stages of sleep than those under age 50. But the short answer is no, we do not need less sleep as we age. Older adults need about the same amount of sleep as younger adults — seven to nine hours per night.
(Some sleep specialists knock one hour off for those aged 65 and up, to a range of seven to eight hours per night.)
It’s a common misperception that poor sleep is a fact of life for aging adults. Yes, it’s normal for sleep patterns to change as we get older, but disturbed, interrupted sleep — and waking up exhausted— should not be accepted as a fact of late life.
Unfortunately, much of the aging population gets less sleep than it needs. 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. By contrast, sleep specialists say 10 to 20 minutes is the norm.
Why don’t older adults sleep as well?
A single night of sleep has many stages. There are dreamless periods of light and deep sleep (non-REM) and occasional periods of active dreaming (REM sleep). As the body ages, less time is spent in deep, restful sleep. In older adults, this means sleep tends to be more fragmented.
Additionally, natural changes in the body’s circadian rhythms can contribute to sleep problems as we get older. In other words, the internal clock that controls the natural sleep/wake cycle shifts — usually to an earlier period. That’s why granddad may fall asleep in the recliner at 8 p.m., be wide awake at 3 a.m. and nap like a baby in the afternoon.
Medical conditions can also factor in. Those with chronic health issues (which tend to increase as we age) have more sleep problems. And people with more sleep problems tend to have poorer health. It’s a vicious cycle.
For example, hypertension is associated with both snoring and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and heart failure — which affects approximately five million Americans — is linked with OSA. In addition, menopause and its accompanying hot flashes, changes in breathing and decreasing hormone levels can lead to many restless nights.
At the same time, older adults who don’t sleep well are more likely to suffer from depression, attention and memory problems and daytime fatigue. They may also fall more, have increased sensitivity to pain and rely too heavily on prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids.
Getting to the root of the problem may be a challenge, but sleep experts insist that sleeping well is essential for physical health and emotional wellbeing — no matter your age. The quality of your sleep affects the quality of your waking life. No other activity delivers so many benefits with so little effort. Older adults who are chronically tired should be encouraged to talk to their doctor about various options to help them sleep.