The Persistent Myth About Older Adults and Sleep

The Persistent Myth About Older Adults and Sleep—And Why You Should Not Take It Lying Down.


If you ask scientists about a fountain of youth, they’ll likely tell you the good news. It exists! And, it is relatively accessible and as free as they come. I’m talking about sleep. Along with exercise and healthy nutrition, it constitutes the holy trinity of a long and satisfying life.

Sleep medicine researchers are increasingly having to correct a misunderstanding about sleep and older adults: that they need less of it. It is a pretty well-ingrained myth: many personal physicians perpetuate it. While it’s true that as we age, we sleep less—it’s not true that we need less sleep.

Insomnia bothers nearly half of all adults in the U.S. over the age of 60. One in four older adults report daytime sleepiness that is strong enough to interfere with daytime plans on a regular basis. But this reality reflects a need for more sleep, not just something that older adults should accept as part of life. In reality, seniors need restorative slumber: 7 to 9 hours of it. And not for cosmetic reasons only!

Science is clear: “Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep,” said Matthew Walker, the senior author of a recent article on older adults and sleep and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience. “We’ve done a good job of extending life span, but a poor job of extending our health span. We now see sleep, and improving sleep, as a new pathway for helping remedy that.”

The reasons for sleep scientists’ strong resolve on this issue have to do with the threats that loom over a senior adult’s life horizon: Poor quality sleep is implicated in such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and stroke.

Such are the claims in the article by Walker and fellow scientists “Sleep and Human Aging,” which appeared in the April issue of the journal Neuron. Sleep deprivation in the elderly is common and it causes harm, but it is by no means inevitable. It can, and needs to, be addressed. Evidence seems to support “the hypothesis that older adults do not have a reduced sleep need, but rather, an impaired ability to register and/or generate that unmet sleep need,” Walker and colleagues write. If your sleep is interrupted by things like hip pain or sleep apnea or worry over your retirement account or family issues, take it as a sign that some things need to be taken care of. Do not accept them lying down.


What aspects of restful sleep suffer as we age?

All of them: Our sleep becomes more fragmented, we get less of it, and we particularly get less of the beneficial slow-wave sleep.

You know you have insomnia if you take at least 30 to 45 minutes to fall asleep, keep waking up in the middle of the night, awake early and tired and can’t go back to sleep but want to—all for a period of a month or longer.  


How Can Older Adults Get More Sleep?

The good news is that there are always things you can control and you can change in order to sleep your way to a longer, healthier life. And, no, this does not mean getting a prescription for sleeping pills—even though about 20 percent of elder adults do. Sleeping pills such as Ambien can work well in the short-term, when you need to manage a crisis. But in the long run, they can become addictive, and lose their effectiveness—not to mention that their side effects can be disturbing.


What can you do instead?

Consider following a healthy sleep hygiene. If you can’t do it all, do what you can.
Every little tweak toward getting more rest will help.

  • Talk to your doctor about secondary insomnia, or sleep troubles that result from underlying illnesses or ailments.
    “Insomnia is more common for seniors, partly because of health issues, partly because of the anxiety and the concerns of aging, and sometimes because of medication,” says Jack Gardner, a sleep medicine neurologist at Baylor Medical Center in Waxahachie, Texas. This means that in order to fix your sleep troubles, you need to talk with your doctor about the causes of what is keeping you up—whether it’s back pain, anxiety, or drug interactions.
  • Try to finish watching TV or using the computer or your smart phone an hour or two before bedtime.
    If you do find yourself relying on these devices to fall asleep, at least try setting them on Night Shift mode or using an app that diminishes the amount of rousing, sleepiness-preventing blue light that you look at.
  • Attempt to go to bed at more or less the same time each day.
    Recruit your partner, if you have one, or family members or flatmates to do what they can to help you in meeting this goal.
  • Limit drinks before bedtime.
    Do not drink an hour before bed and try to empty your bladder before falling asleep.
  • Do not rely on alcohol as a sleeping aid.
    Two drinks or more will help you fall asleep faster, but you are likely to experience arousals because of it and, say, wake up at 3 a.m. or so or experience fitful dreaming. Some alcoholics report having become addicted to alcohol because they had experienced sleep troubles and used it as a sleeping pill.
  • Make sure that you sleep in a dark, quiet, and cool room.
    If you sleep with a partner and she or he snores, use earplugs designed specifically for sleeping with a snorer or other options to prevent your own sleep loss as a result.
  • Sleep on a comfortable mattress.
    If you suffer from arthritis or rheumatism or back pain, pay attention to proper alignment and pressure points when choosing a mattress.
  • Try Meditation.
    Consider mindfulness meditation, which has been linked to deeper and more restful sleep and gives the practitioners the ability to disconnect from anxiety.
  • Exercise during the day.
    This cannot be overstated. There’s much value in safe weight-bearing exercise. The more you keep up your muscle volume, the better your body’s thermoregulation—a key element in both feeling sleepy and falling asleep and waking up. When our body’s temperature goes down slightly, we feel sleepy. When it rises slightly, in the morning, we want to wake up.  
  • Try Natural Supplements
    Ask your doctor about the usefulness of natural supplements such as melatonin and valerian root.

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Thank You to Our Guest Blog Writer:

Agnes Green

Researcher | Tuck Sleep

PO Box 61293 | Seattle, WA 98141-6293

Agnes Green is a researcher for the sleep hub Tuck Sleep. She holds two master’s degrees in the social sciences from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. She sleeps best after a kettlebell workout in Portland, Oregon.

Tuck Sleep Foundation is a non-profit community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been featured on NPR, Lifehacker, Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web.