Changes in sleep that happen with age

When you were younger, sleep may have come easily. As you get older, you may find that you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, or that you’re tired during the day. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve your sleep on your own or with the help of a health care professional. 

Learn how sleep patterns change as you age, as well as what influences your sleep and how to get a better night’s rest.

Do older adults need less sleep?

It’s a myth that you need less sleep as you get older, according to the National Institute on Aging. You need the same amount of sleep as other adults – a recommended 7 to 9 hours each night.1

The amount of sleep you get does decrease as you age, but not as much as you might think. “From adolescence through adulthood [around age 60], sleep really doesn’t change all that much,” says Joshua Lennon, M.D., facility director for the Neurology Clinic Sleep Center in Memphis and an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

An analysis of 169 studies with 5,000 healthy adults found that total sleep time decreased by only about 10 minutes for each decade of age.2 For example, a 50-year-old gets about 20 minutes less sleep than a 30-year-old. Another metric of sleep health is how long it takes you to fall asleep. This same study found that for every decade, this amount of time changes by only about 1 minute in healthy adults.

Tips for improving sleep

If you've noticed a change in your sleep quality, you don't have to settle for tossing and turning every night or getting less sleep than you need. Consider the suggestions below to help you get more restful, restorative sleep.

Prioritize physical activity

Don’t underestimate the effect that physical activity has on sleep, says Kelly Glazer Baron, Ph.D., associate professor, clinical psychologist and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine program at University of Utah Health. A decrease in physical activity can negatively affect your sleep. The opposite is also true: Regular physical activity can help you sleep better. “There’s a tremendous amount of data that people who are more active have better sleep at night. It’s one of the most important things you can do for your sleep,” Dr. Baron says.

To improve the quality of your sleep, Dr. Lennon advises aiming for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly, as recommended for adults in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.3 But any amount of physical activity can help. For example, one of the goals in the guidelines for older adults is to sit less and move more. This could be as simple as walking around the block once or twice a day, trying chair yoga or taking the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator, if you’re able. Talk with your doctor before significantly increasing your activity level. Ask about the amount and types of activities that may be best for you.

Keep your brain active

Being engaged socially, mentally and emotionally also supports better sleep. When you interact with other people, your brain expends energy, which helps build the need for sleep at night. Less social activity during the day results in less deep sleep at night, Dr. Lennon says. “The more we engage with people during the daytime, the more rest the brain needs and achieves at night,” he says.

Stick to a sleep schedule

Maintaining a consistent wake-sleep schedule – getting up at the same time and going to bed at the same time every day – can have a significant impact on sleep. “Staying on a good rhythm and routine is really critical,” says Dr. Baron. She ranks setting a consistent wake-sleep schedule as her top piece of advice for getting healthy sleep.

Get the lighting right

Light also affects our sleep, especially sunlight. Dr. Lennon recommends bright light upon waking and throughout the day, then reducing light exposure at night. “The optimal schedule is to wake up sometime between about 5 and 7 a.m., right around or just before sunrise, and to go to sleep sometime between about 9 and 11 p.m.” Adjust the timing to reach your sleep goal of 7 to 9 hours per night.

When should you see a doctor about sleep issues?

While getting older does not automatically mean that your sleep will get worse, the chances of having sleep problems do increase as you age. If you’re having sleep problems, you may have a treatable medical condition, such as insomnia or sleep apnea. Talk to your doctor about seeing a sleep specialist if you are consistently:

  • Having trouble falling asleep
  • Having trouble staying asleep
  • Tired all day
  • Snoring at night, or your partner notices you gasping for breath as you sleep

Your doctor may also be able to help you with these issues that can make it harder to get sleep:

  • Getting up to go to the bathroom often
  • Feeling sick or being in pain
  • Taking medication that affects sleep
  • Going through perimenopause or menopause (in addition to hormonal changes, symptoms such as night sweats and hot flashes can disrupt your sleep)

If any of these factors are affecting your sleep, talk to your doctor about possible treatments, a change in medication or working with a sleep specialist.

Just remember: There are steps you can take to improve your sleep, no matter your age. Prioritize physical activity, stay mentally engaged and stick to a sleep schedule. That may start you on a path toward more restorative sleep.

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