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Sleep and aging

Dr. Sleep's Tips Michael Breus, MD, Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert, Bestselling Author of The Power of When

Here's an interesting myth worth thinking about: Do older people need less sleep?

This is a really interesting question that has been asked a lot lately. One thing's for sure, though—you'll have a much harder time enjoying your golden years if you're exhausted and sleep-deprived most of the time. Fortunately, there are ways to help you get a better night's rest, but is there any truth to this myth?

Before we answer the question, first of all, let's understand why older people sometimes have trouble sleeping.

As you get older, you may have specific sleep problems that you didn't have when you were younger. Your sleep patterns can change significantly as you age, and always have. As a child you needed between 9 and 12 hours, as a teenager - 8 to 10, and as an adult - between 7 and 9 hours.

As you age, you may also experience the following changes:

  • You sleep less or just the opposite - you are constantly sleepy;

  • You take more naps during the day and can't sleep at night;

  • You do not sleep well at night and/or wake up often;

  • While healthy older people don't necessarily have sleep problems, there are a number of factors that can cause them, such as:

  • Changes in hormone and melatonin levels;

  • Change in circadian rhythm;

  • Changes in sleep patterns, such as those described above.

The natural aging of the brain can affect the quality of sleep. The aging suprachiasmatic nucleus, the part of the brain that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, can disrupt the healthy sleep a person needs as they age.

In addition to the aging brain, there are other health factors that negatively affect sleep:

  • Nocturnal disturbances, such as pain or need to use the toilet frequently;

  • Sleep disorders, such as insomnia or sleep apnea;

  • Conditions such as restless legs syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder or REM sleep behavior disorder;

  • Menopause;

  • Certain medicines;

  • Reduced physical activity and a sedentary lifestyle.

With all this in mind, let's answer the question we started this post with: do older people need less sleep?

Simply put - the answer is NO, it's just a myth.

Even as you get older, you have much the same need for sleep as you did in your younger years as an adult.

Shorter periods of insomnia are associated with higher amounts of amyloid beta in the brain. These are the proteins that can potentially disrupt the activity of brain cells. When this happens, cognitive functions suffer and a person begins to forget or experience difficulties associated with Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

Older people who sleep longer or are constantly sleepy probably suffer from heart disease, which also affects the quality of their sleep, causing them to sleep longer to "make up" for insufficient sleep. That's why too much sleep can also be a sign of cognitive decline.

Quality sleep helps you stay healthy and fresh during the day. If you don't get enough sleep, it can increase your risk of falls, accidents and injuries. Unfortunately, older people are more likely to suffer from sleep disorders, so what can you do to ensure you get the restful sleep you need?

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