The number of hours sleep that we require (or that are recommended I should say) typically changes as we age.
Newborn babies and infants should be sleeping for 14-17 hours a day. Even as a teenager, you should be sleeping for up to 9-10 hours a day.
However, the amount of sleep we need as we enter adulthood seems to level off to a recommended 7-9 hours a day, and this potentially stays the same for the rest of our lives.
With that being said, I have seen it as an “accepted wisdom” that we need less sleep as we get older.
On the other hand, I have recently read an article asking why seniors/older people sleep so much. Admittedly the article was very tongue-in-cheek, although I still think it had a valid point (but of a more serious nature – which I will discuss below).
So, I wanted to look a little further into whether we do actually need less sleep as we get older.
The Changes in Sleeping Habits As We Get Older
Firstly, I think It’s important to answer the question immediately and outright.
“Do You Need Less Sleep As You Get Older?”
The answer is NO. Most healthy adults, irrespective of age, so this includes those aged over 65 require 7-9 hours sleep a night in order to feel rested, refreshed and alert (I have discussed on many occasions that there are certain exceptions to the rule, I.e. some people require more or less than the recommended number of hours of sleep).
Where I think the myth of needing less sleep as we get older comes from is the fact that it is quite commonplace for older adults to wake up early in the morning.
However, upon closer inspection I think there is a lot more to this than initially meets the eye.
Some other changes that seniors and the elderly go through include, that they get tired earlier in the evening, plus they frequently wake up in the middle of the night, often unable to get back to sleep.
This in turn can eventually lead to insomnia.
I think the reason that sometimes the opposite is deemed to be true (as illustrated in the article I read about why older people seem to sleep so much) is because we are often used to seeing the elderly nap throughout the day, in addition to sleeping at night.
But, surely the frequent need for daytime naps is simply a symptom of insomnia or sleep deprivation. It makes sense that if you’re not getting enough sleep at night that you’ll feel tired during the day.
Yet another consideration is the changes the body goes through as we get older.
You are likely to be more prone to aches and pains as the body ages, so this could be an explanation for difficulty in sleeping.
There is also a higher prevalence of medical conditions in the elderly, which can simply aggravate any sleeping difficulties you may already have.
Additionally, the need for medication in order to treat certain conditions can cause disruptions to sleep.
Finally, the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, decreases as we get older and this can cause disruptions to our circadian rhythms (the 24-hour internal body clock).
When you look at all these factors together I think it’s obvious that it’s not a case of needing less sleep as we get older, but more that sleep is interrupted more often, thus causing us to sleep less.
My Own Experience of “Needing Less Sleep As You Get Older”
Okay, I’m not old enough to be talking about “my own experience”, but this “lack of sleep and the need to nap thing” is certainly something I witnessed with my late parents.
My mother had diabetes and sleep apnea (as well as a weak heart and kidneys). I always assumed that she slept far too much as she aged.
She would often nap throughout the day and had the uncanny ability to hold a perfectly normal conversation one second and be fast asleep the next.
However, the more I researched her various medical (and sleep) conditions, the more it made sense.
My mother would typically “sleep” for around 8 hours a night, but in truth, from her numerous medications, constant aches and pain and having to wear a CPAP machine for her sleep apnea, how much sleep was she really getting at night?
This goes a long way to explaining her need for constant naps.
When I look at my father, he suffered terribly with insomnia. I’m aware that insomnia can in some cases be genetic, and I’ve often thought this is the reason I have suffered this affliction throughout my life.
With that being said, my father is someone who had suffered 2 heart attacks, lived the last 25 years of his life with heart disease, was taking over 10 different tablets on a daily basis, and still managed to maintain a fairly active lifestyle, I.e. he walked every day and would spend hours a day in his beloved garden during the summer months.
But, looking back on this now, once again he was in constant pain and the literal onslaught of medication must have made it extremely difficult to sleep.
Other Things to Consider That May Be Affecting Sleep
I have mentioned my parent’s sleep disorders, sleep apnea and insomnia, but as we age certain movement-based sleep disorders become more common.
One such issue is restless leg syndrome. Periodic movements of the legs that can last for 20-40 seconds at a time is obviously going to wake you up from your slumber.
In addition to this, as we age it is far harder to fall asleep once we’ve woken up. In fact, it could take anywhere from 30-60 minutes to fall asleep again. So being in bed for 7 hours at night could translate to only getting 4-6 hours of actual sleep, depending on how many times a specific sleep disorder has woken you up.
Any sleep disorder that you are suffering from at night will impact on the quality of sleep you’re getting. And to be completely honest, sleep is about quality and not the quantity of hours you actually spend below the covers.
The need to wake up earlier than usual as we age could simply be the fact that you no longer want to lie in bed completely awake for any longer, so it just feels easier to get out of bed.
This yet again explains the need for afternoon naps that we typically associate with the elderly.
I think we also need to consider the onset of certain psychological conditions as we age and the effect they are having on the quality of sleep.
I’m aware that conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzeheimer’s can start at any age, but they are more likely to occur as we get older. You can also add dementia to that list, and all of these conditions are likely to impact on the quality of sleep that you are getting.
Did you know that it shouldn’t take more than 10-15 minutes to fall asleep once your head hits the pillow?
Don’t get me wrong, there may occasionally be times when it takes longer to fall asleep.
These times are typically associated with emotions such as, sadness, happiness, anger, fear, worry, etc. We may also struggle to fall asleep within a “normal period of time” if we feel physical pain.
However, on the whole, as a healthy adult, the vast majority of us will fall asleep within this allotted 10-15 minute window pretty much every night.
Now imagine having emotional issues or physical pain every single night – not something that any of us want to go through.
A study conducted on adults aged over 65 found that 13% of men and 36% of women took longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep. Plus, pretty much all other participants in the study fell asleep somewhere between 15-30 minutes (so still longer than it should take).
I think all of this evidence goes to prove that it’s not a case of needing less sleep as you get older, but more so that we’re just not getting enough sleep as we age.
What Can You Do To Improve Sleep As You Get Older?
I wanted to provide a list of tips that can actually help to improve sleep as we get older, but to be honest someone beat me to it.
Okay, not really.
However, my friend and colleague, Hannie, has actually written an article outlining a number of tips, as well as sharing her own experiences.
So, please take some time to check out her article, How To Sleep Better and Faster When You’re Aging.
Thank you, Hannie, it’s much appreciated.
I hope it’s now obvious that you don’t in fact need less sleep as you get older.
The recommended amount of sleep for an adult is 7-9 hours, no matter what age you are.
Unfortunately, as we get older there are so many factors to take into consideration that can potentially affect not only the number of hours we spend in bed, but also the overall quality of sleep we are getting.
So, if you ever see an elderly relative napping during the day, leave them be and let them rest.
The likelihood is that they haven’t had a great night’s sleep.