Healthy Living

How Our Sleep Needs Change as We Age

Feb 15 2023

A good night’s sleep is as important to your health as regular exercise and nutritious food. While you sleep, your body and mind rest and repair themselves.

People who don’t get enough sleep may have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and depression. And as you age, your sleep needs and sleep patterns change.

Sleep patterns by age

The amount of sleep you need every day changes throughout your life. You can see in the list below the recommended hours of sleep for different age groups.

  • 0 to 3 months: 14 to 17 hours
  • 4 to 12 months: 12 to 15 hours
  • 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours
  • 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours
  • 6 to 12 years: 9 to 11 hours
  • 13 to 18 years: 8 to 10 hours
  • 18 to 65 years: 7 to 9 hours
  • 65 years and older: 7 to 8 hours

Of course, these numbers are general recommendations. The amount of sleep you need depends on several factors, including the quality of your sleep and your daily activities.

Why your sleep pattern changes with age

As you get older, you may notice changes in the way you sleep. For example, you may feel tired earlier in the evening or wake up earlier in the morning. You may discover that you need a nap in the afternoon or wake up in the middle of the night. These changes happen because of a shift in your body’s internal clock. The part of your brain that controls your body’s circadian rhythms ages along with the rest of your body.

Many older adults do not spend enough time in daylight to regulate their circadian rhythms. Their bodies also tend to produce less melatonin, a hormone that helps the body regulate circadian rhythms and promote sleep. Some adults have health conditions or take medication that interrupts their sleep.

Sleep and aging: What to expect as you get older

Sleep disturbances in older adults vary from person to person. Some don’t notice any changes in their sleep habits, while others suffer from poor sleep.

Common sleep issues include:

  • Insomnia: Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep is a common problem for older adults.
  • Napping: Older adults are more likely than young adults to take a nap in the middle of the day. These naps may be a cause or effect of poor nighttime sleep.
  • Nighttime waking: Older people tend to have fewer periods of deep sleep and are more likely to wake during the night.
  • Restless leg syndrome: Around 20 percent of older adults have involuntary limb movements that affect the quality of their sleep.
  • Shifting sleep schedule: It’s common to start going to bed and getting up earlier as you age because of changes in your body’s internal clock.
  • Sleep apnea: People with this disorder stop breathing while they sleep. This leads to decreased oxygen and fragmented sleep.
  • Slower recovery from time changes: Older adults need more time to adjust to time changes, including daylight saving time or jet lag.

These sleep disturbances aren’t limited to senior citizens. Middle-age sleep problems include many of the items on this list. Stress and changing hormone levels start to affect sleep for people in their 40s and 50s.

How to get better sleep at any age

You can take steps to get better sleep at any age. For many people, all it takes is a few habits, such as taking electronic devices out of the bedroom and sleeping in a dark room set at a comfy temperature. Avoiding large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bed can help, as can exercising.

Sometimes you may have trouble sleeping even when you follow good sleep habits. If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you may need more help. The best treatment for insomnia in older adults depends on what causes the interrupted sleep.

Here are some of the most common treatments available:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: This treatment includes identifying anxiety that interferes with sleep and changing beliefs and attitudes to reduce those anxieties.
  • Medication: Doctors can prescribe meds to help patients fall asleep faster or stay asleep. You also can find over-the-counter sleep aids.
  • Relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises and meditation may reduce insomnia.
  • Sleep education and hygiene: For some people, changing behaviors like setting a sleep schedule or cutting back on alcohol and caffeine can improve sleep quality.
  • Sleep restriction: Cutting back on the amount of time you spend in bed may help reduce insomnia.
  • Stimulus control: Creating a positive relationship with your bedroom and bed may help improve sleep quality. This includes embracing habits like going to sleep only when tired, using the bed only for sleep. Also, getting up at the same time each day.

Sleep is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. If you feel like you aren’t getting quality sleep at night, it may be time to talk to a health care provider.

Learn about the sleep medicine services we provide at Mercy Health.

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