Why do people say, “I slept like a baby!” to indicate that they’ve had a great night’s sleep? Anyone who’s ever had one knows that they are generally terrible at sleeping through the night! But, if you’re an older adult, you might find that your sleep habits are coming full circle, and you’re back to literally “sleeping like a baby”: you might have trouble falling or staying asleep, or you might feel the urge to nap during the day. It’s true that sleep changes as we age, but we still need to get some solid Z’s in, so read on to find out how much sleep you need, why you might be having trouble getting it, and how you can get more of it!
There’s a misconception out there that older adults actually need less sleep than younger people do. We know babies need about 16 hours of sleep a day, and that gradually lessens to the 7 – 8 hours that most adults aim for, and many of us assume that that amount continues to decrease. This is especially true because older adults tend to wake up a lot earlier than younger adults do, so we assume that they’re just always bright-eyed and bushy tailed and ready to go after a few hours of catnapping.
But this is an incorrect assumption. Older adults still need 6 – 9 hours of sleep per day. The difference is that the sleep-wake cycle of seniors shifts to earlier in the day as they age. This causes seniors to become tired earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning. For many people, this schedule conflicts with the sleep schedule everyone else is on, so it often becomes a choice between being social and giving in to the desire to go to bed at 7PM! Then, continually staying up past the time when you want to go to sleep can lead to difficulty with your sleep cycle, meaning daytime sleepiness and a desire to nap.
So, should you give in to this desire to nap? Many seniors actually end up spreading out their sleep over the whole day, as opposed to getting all of it at night, but this may not be the right strategy for everyone. In general, people who want better sleep at night should avoid napping, regardless of age, and should focus on better sleep at night. You should especially avoid napping if you’ve been diagnosed with insomnia, as it will throw off your body’s natural rhythm. If you don’t have any medical issues, you should be ok to take a quick 30 minute nap, but be sure to do it earlier in the afternoon rather than later.
Most of us are painfully aware that knowing the recommended amount of sleep is one thing and getting it is a whole other story. With age comes changes to your sleep-wake cycle, as well as other changes to your sleep. In addition to waking up earlier, feeling the need to go to bed earlier, and wanting to nap, you should expect that it will take longer to fall asleep and that you might wake up more often. Natural changes in your body play a part, but other things can, as well, including:
- Side effects of prescription medications
- Chronic pain, often from health conditions like arthritis
- Alcohol consumption
- Not getting enough exercise
- Alzheimer’s disease or a neurological problem
- Caffeine consumption
- A frequent need to urinate during the night
All of this can chip away at your precious time spent snoozing. According to Bradley Edwards, PhD, sleep expert and instructor in medicine in the division of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, “A meta-analysis demonstrated that the amount of sleep we have decreases by approximately 10 minutes per decade up to the age of 60, and that this decline is more pronounced in men compared with women.”
How to Get More Shut-Eye!
Unfortunately, these changes to your sleep patterns are a normal part of aging, and you should have realistic expectations about what your sleep will look like as you get older. While you might need at least 6 hours of sleep to be at your best, it becomes harder and harder to get that. But you know what? Worrying won’t help! As Dan G. Blazer, MD, PhD, geriatrician and psychiatrist at Duke Medicine in Durham, N.C. points out, “The problem for many older adults is that they don’t expect or accept these changes. Instead, they begin to worry about their sleep, which can lead to real concern, even when their sleep is not at all abnormal. Worry is also an enemy of optimal sleep, and sleep remains essential to mental and physical health even as the decades roll by.”
So take the doctor’s advice and don’t stress about sleep; instead, try a few simple strategies to improve your “sleep hygiene.” These can include:
- Limiting naps – As we have said, napping isn’t always a terrible thing, but try not to get into the habit of taking a snooze every day. And if you really must nap, do so for only about 30 minutes, closer to lunchtime than dinnertime.
- Sticking to a schedule – It can be tough, but try setting a bedtime and sticking to it as closely as possible. Going to bed early one night and very late the next can start to make sleep more difficult over time. Try to get up around the same time each day, as well, so you can begin to train your body to get optimal sleep!
- Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco products – Alcohol is a depressant, and caffeine and nicotine are both stimulants, and all three can really mess with your sleep. Cut back as much as possible on alcohol and tobacco products (to help you sleep, as well as for your general health), and, if you’re a coffee drinker, limit it to the morning.
- Being more active – Getting more exercise during the day is beneficial in so many ways! It keeps your heart healthy, can help with arthritic pain, and it can help you to sleep better at night. Just remember to get your workouts in in the morning or afternoon, not after 7 or 8 in the evening.
- Making your bedroom a dedicated sleep space – Leave the work, screens, TV, projects, etc in another room. Your bedroom should be reserved for rest (ok, and sex).
- Keeping your bedroom cool and dark – Again, keep the screens out of your bedroom and limit blue light an hour before bedtime. Make your room as dark as possible – you may want to keep a flashlight by your bed in case you need to get up in the middle of the night. Turn your thermostat down well before you go to bed, so that your bedroom will be cooler, which is more conducive to sleep.
- Putting your worries aside – As we mentioned earlier, worrying – about anything – can interfere with your sleep, keeping you awake at night or even waking you up. Try some relaxation strategies before bed, like meditation, reading something soothing, taking a warm bath, or writing down your worries and promising yourself you’ll get back to them later.
- Talking to your doctor – For many people, sleep disruptions are a normal part of aging. In some cases, though, sleep problems are due to medical issues such as chronic pain, depression, or a true sleep disorder. If you think your sleep issues might be more serious, speak to your doctor.
If you’re losing sleep, don’t, well, lose sleep over it! It’s natural, if frustrating, for your sleep patterns to change as you get older. You can’t completely reverse the effects of aging on your sleep, but with some of these strategies, and maybe a conversation with your doctor, you can get in a little more shut-eye, as well as get the most out of the sleep you do get.