Healthy Living

How Our Sleep Needs Change With Aging

Jan 22 2024

The following piece was written by Sreenivasa Chanamolu, MD, a provider at Mercy Health – St. Rita’s Sleep Center.

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. But did you know that our sleep needs change with aging? Join me as I dive into the ins and outs of your sleep needs as you age.

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. While younger adults and older people might need the amount of sleep in general, the actual amount of sleep you need depends on several factors, including the quality of your sleep and your daily activities.

Why do your sleep needs change with aging?

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 naps during the day or that you regularly wake up in the middle of the night.

All of these changes happen because of a shift in your body’s internal clock. This 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. Additionally, some adults have health conditions or take medication with side effects that cause sleep problems.

What can you expect as you get older, sleep-wise?

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.

The following are common sleep issues:

  • Insomnia: Happens when you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and is a common problem for older adults.
  • Napping: Older adults are more likely than young adults to partake in daytime napping. 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.

It is important to remember that these sleep disturbances aren’t limited to senior citizens. Middle-age sleep problems include many of the items on this list. In fact, stress and changing hormone levels start to affect sleep for people in their 40s and 50s.

How can someone 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 well as 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 or other sleep disorders in older adults depends on what causes the interrupted sleep.

What are some of the most common sleep 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 and using the bed only for sleep. Also, getting up at the same time each day.

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts on how sleep needs change with aging. And if you feel like you aren’t getting quality sleep at night, it may be time to get some help from a medical professional.

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

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