Do Seniors Need Less Sleep?

Dr. Michael W. Smith of WebMD offers the following definitive answer, “As children and adolescents, we need more sleep than we do as young adults. But by our senior years, we need the same seven to nine hours a night we did as teens.

 Though studies show most sleep problems are not related to aging, sometimes medical or emotional conditions linked to getting older can interfere with sleep. Aging also affects our sleep-wake pattern, causing us to feel sleepy earlier in the evening and wake earlier in the morning. 

Getting enough sleep is particularly important after 50 since a lack can increase the risk of memory problems and depression, as well as nighttime falls.

However, Phyllis C. Zee, MD, PhD, Professor of Neurology and Neurobiology & Physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine says otherwise.

Speaking before a Northwestern Memorial Healthy Transitions Program® group of seniors, Dr. Zee said that it is unclear if the need to sleep decreases with age. However, the ability to sleep does decrease with age. Reasons include the influence of medical and psychiatric illness, the influence of medications on sleep and the presence of specific sleep disorders.

Additionally, it is harder to recover lost sleep as you get older. Seniors have difficulty sleeping more than eight hours.

Dr. Zee listed a number of conditions associated with sleep disturbances, including: heart disease, hypertension, respiratory diseases, renal disease, prostate disease, diabetes, reflux peptic ulcer, immune diseases, arthritis and nocturia (the need to urinate at night).

She said good sleep is a barometer of health in older adults.

The impact of poor sleep  in the elderly includes:

  • Difficulty sustaining attention and slowed response time
  • Decreased ability to accomplish daily tasks
  • Impairments in memory and concentration
  • Increased consumption of health car resources
  • Increased risk of falls
  • Shorter survival
  • Inability to enjoy social relationships
  • Increased incidence of pain

The American Sleep Apnea Association says, “The Greek word “apnea” literally means “without breath.” Sleep apnea is an involuntary cessation of breathing that occurs while the patient is asleep. There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central, and mixed. Of the three, obstructive sleep apnea, often called OSA for short, is the most common. Despite the difference in the root cause of each type, in all three, people with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times during the night and often for a minute or longer. In most cases the sleeper is unaware of these breath stoppages because they don’t trigger a full awakening.”

Dr. Zee listed sleepiness and snoring as presenting symptoms of sleep apnea. Additional symptoms included nocturia, morning headaches, irritability, depression and poor memory.

Sleep apnea causes sleepiness, impaired quality of life, decreased cognitive function, increased health care costs, increased car accidents, impaired glucose control, hypertension, increased vascular risk, increased mortality rate and impotence.

Like nutrition and physical activity, sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle for all. It is a potentially modifiable risk factor in mental and physical function, according to Dr. Zee.

She offered the following as good sleep hygiene practices:

  • Regular sleep-wake cycle
  • Regular morning/afternoon exercise
  • Increase daytime exposure to bright light
  • Avoid heavy meals or drinking within 3 hours of bedtime
  • Enhance sleep environment (dark shades)
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
  • Have a relaxation routine
  • Wear socks to bed



Filed under aging, sleep

2 responses to “Do Seniors Need Less Sleep?

  1. Fascinating stuff, something that is often overlooked and where fold lore prevails. In todays world where stress is ever prevalent our bodies need to be able to keep up.
    If more stressors are acting upon us our bodies need time to recuperate hence sleep is very important – and good quality sleep. I reckon, personally fitness is part of the equation because a fitter body can cope better with stress and so good sleep is possible. People can improve their fitness, reduce the impact of stress and get a good nights sleep by looking around for the best Elliptical machines on the market and getting fit in their own homes, simple.


    • Jonathon –

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As I directed this post toward seniors, I have to note that they don’t have the time, energy or strength to do a lot of exercise, for that reason, I don’t favor the elliptical machines as they are non-impact exercisers. Seniors need to do weight-bearing exercise to keep their bones strong and protect against osteoporosis. Elliptical machines do not offer weight-bearing exercise. Personally, I would rather a senior took a nice half hour walk instead.

      Having said that, I have no problems with younger folks using the elliptical machines as they have more time, energy and strength and can do both.



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