Is It True That the Older You Get, the Less Sleep You Need?

Reviewed on 9/22/2021

It's a myth that you need less sleep as you get older. Older adults still need the same amount of sleep as younger adults — seven or more hours per night. Many older adults don't get as much sleep as they need for a variety of reasons.
It's a myth that you need less sleep as you get older. Older adults still need the same amount of sleep as younger adults — seven or more hours per night. Many older adults don't get as much sleep as they need for a variety of reasons.

It's a myth that you need less sleep as you get older. Older adults still need the same amount of sleep as younger adults — seven or more hours per night. But, many older adults don't get as much sleep as they need.

They may have trouble falling and staying asleep for a variety of reasons. However, sleeping less isn't a normal part of aging. If you're having trouble sleeping, there are treatments and sleep tips that can help.

Why older adults might sleep less

There are many reasons seniors might sleep less than they need. Not getting enough sleep can lead to poor quality of life and other problems, like:

  • Depressed mood
  • Memory problems
  • Concentration problems
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Nighttime falls
  • Use of over-the-counter or prescription sleep medicine

Sleep disorders in older adults - insomnia

Here are some sleep problems older adults may have.

Insomnia

Insomnia affects up to half of the people aged over 65 years. Seniors are more likely to have problems staying asleep or waking up than problems going to sleep. This may be caused by age-related changes in their sleeping and waking patterns. Symptoms of insomnia can include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up a lot at night
  • Waking up too early
  • Feeling tired during the day
  • Problems focusing or concentrating
  • Irritability

There are many causes of insomnia. It can be a disorder on its own or a symptom of another problem. Some possible causes are:

  • Change in life circumstances like losing a loved one or being hospitalized
  • Needing to use the bathroom in the middle of the night
  • Medical conditions that cause pain or discomfort at night such as arthritis, heartburn, cancer, or menopause
  • Heart failure
  • Lung disease
  • Neurologic problems such as Parkinson's disease or dementia
  • Psychiatric conditions such as depression
  • Napping during the day
  • Not getting enough exercise or exposure to sunlight
  • Medication side effects

Sleep disorders in older adults - movement disorders

Movement disorders like restless leg syndrome (RLS) and periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) can make it hard to sleep. Both of these conditions are more common in older adults. 

RLS is a condition that causes your legs to feel very uncomfortable when you are sitting or lying down in the evenings and at night. You may have a "creepy-crawly" sensation that makes you want to move your legs. PLMD causes you to kick your legs while you're sleeping. You may have both RLS and PLMD.

While doctors don't know exactly what causes RLS, it's associated with some other conditions, including:

Sleep disorders in older adults - sleep-disordered breathing

Snoring and sleep apnea are two conditions that make it hard to breathe when you sleep. They can cause you to wake up at night and be tired the next day.

Snoring is caused by a partial blockage in your airway. It's a very common condition that is more common in overweight and older adults.

Sleep apnea can be either obstructive or central. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the air entering your mouth or nose is partially or completely blocked. This blockage can be caused by extra tissue at the back of the throat and mouth or obesity. Obstructive sleep apnea can increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and thinking problems.

Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain doesn't send the right signals to restart your breathing. You can have both types of sleep apnea at once.

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Tips for better sleep

The treatment of your sleep problem will depend on what's causing it. Talk to your doctor about your sleep issues. You may need some tests to diagnose your sleep disorder. Your doctor may be able to prescribe medication or other treatments to help you sleep better.

Some lifestyle tips that may help you sleep better include:

  • Don't nap for more than 20 minutes during the day.
  • Don't drink caffeine for 8 hours before bed.
  • Keep your bedroom for sleep — don't read, watch television, or eat in your bedroom.
  • Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day, even on weekends.
  • Avoid nicotine and alcohol in the evening. Though alcohol can make you sleepy, it may also cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.
  • Getting exercise during the day may help you sleep better.
  • Ask your doctor if any of your medicines could be interfering with your sleep. Antidepressants, beta-blockers, and cardiovascular drugs can cause problems with your sleep.
  • Don't stay in bed too long trying to get to sleep. After 30 minutes, get up and do something quietly in another room — like reading or listening to music. Don't do anything stimulating. After a while, go back to bed and try to sleep again.
  • Apply warm or cool packs to your legs if you’re having RLS symptoms.
  • Try an over-the-counter pain reliever to relieve restless legs.
  • Try some relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation before bed.

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References
American Academy of Sleep Medicine: "Sleep and Growing Older."

Familydoctor.org: "Restless Leg Syndrome," "Sleep Changes in Older Adults."

Journal of General and Family Medicine: "Sleep disorders in the elderly: Diagnosis and management."

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