In later life, my father-in-law routinely got up at 3 in the morning. He had become such an early riser that he became a night owl, a man resigned to his post-retirement inability to clock more than four or five hours of rest. I remember taking his routines as a grim prophecy. And when a few years later I found myself battling brutal bouts of insomnia, I wondered if, along with laugh lines and macular degeneration, insomnia was also an inevitable part of aging for me.
There is a persistent conventional wisdom that older people simply don’t need as much sleep, an idea that likely arises from the idea that as our lifestyles become ostensibly less active, our needs for the restorative benefits of rest diminish. As recently as 2008, a report in Current Biology found that in one experiment, older subjects slept 1.5 hours less on average than their younger counterparts. “The most parsimonious explanation for our results,” researcher Elizabeth Klerman of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School said at the time, “is that older people need less sleep.”
But what we need and what really get They are two completely different entities and we are in the midst of a sleep shortage that affects Americans across generational lines. The CDC notes that “one-third of American adults report that they typically get less sleep than the recommended amount.” It’s a crisis that can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health, with lack of sleep contributing to obesity, hypertension, diabetes, depression and stroke. And even taking into account fluctuations between different age populations, most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. The key is to simply stay in a healthy range.
“One-third of American adults report that they typically sleep less than the recommended amount.”
Dr. Ryan Sultan, a psychiatrist, therapist, researcher and certified professor at Columbia University, says that “as we age, the amount of sleep needed tends to decrease. Older adults can be well-rested and alert after 6 to 7 hours.” “.
My late father-in-law may not have had much energy after dinner, but his days were as active and busy as his lonely pre-dawn hours. Sultan says it’s simply a matter of paying attention to general health patterns and any changes that seem strange. “In my clinical experience,” he says, “I have observed that older adults often face unique challenges, such as medical conditions or medications that affect sleep. Addressing these factors with a healthcare professional is crucial to developing a personalized approach to improve the dream”.
As Sultan says: “The concept of normal sleep changes as we age, and recognizing these changes is essential to maintaining optimal health.”
“Generally speaking, the ability to sleep declines as we age, as the mechanisms that control sleep become less robust over time.”
The real culprit we need to pay attention to as we age is not the quantity of sleep, but the quality of it. Older people have unique vulnerabilities when it comes to getting deep and consistent rest. A 2017 analysis in the journal Sleep Medicine Clinics explained how so-called “sleep architecture” can change with age, including “an advanced sleep schedule, shorter duration of nighttime sleep, increased frequency of daytime naps, a increased number of nocturnal awakenings and the time spent awake during the day. at night, decreased slow-wave sleep, and other changes.
Auckland sleep psychologist Dan Ford, clinical director of the Better Sleep Clinic, puts it simply: “Generally speaking, the ability to sleep declines as we age, as the mechanisms that control sleep become less robust over time. time”. But nothing is set in stone. He adds: “Healthy older adults do not necessarily show these changes in their sleep parameters.”
Why do those wonderful, long-held dreams of our youth become so elusive as we age? There is a whole litany of reasons. There is menopause, with its discomfort and night sweats. Toilet problems can also keep a person of any gender up and down all night. Changes in the urinary tract, along with other factors such as bladder obstruction, make nocturia (frequent urination at night) much more common in adults over 60 years of age.
There are other physical factors, too: The National Council on Aging estimates that “56% of people age 65 and older are at high risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea.” Our circadian rhythms also change as we age, leading to what can make us feel like we live in a different time zone than our family and friends. And then there are mental health issues. Grief, loneliness, financial loss, and other stressors can ruin a good night’s rest, and symptoms of depression and anxiety often go undiagnosed. A 2018 study on insomnia in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that “up to 50% of older adults complain of difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep.”
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So if you’re noticing that your nights now generally involve periods of wakefulness, is it a good idea to catch up a little when possible during the day?
“Napping can be a helpful strategy for older adults,” says Dr. Ryan Sultan, “but timing and duration matter. Short naps of about 20 to 30 minutes can increase alertness without interfering with sleep. nighttime sleep. However, prolonged naps or late afternoon naps could disrupt the sleep-wake cycle, making it more difficult to fall asleep at night.” However, your mileage may vary even there: I have a friend in his 50s who regularly relaxes before making dinner. He calls it a “napetizer.”
For those who have difficulty resisting longer naps, Rod Mitchell, a Calgary psychologist with experience in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, recommends compensating for grogginess with a “coffee nap.” He says: “Combine a small, controlled intake of caffeine (such as half a cup of coffee) followed by a short 20-minute nap. This method can enhance the restorative effect of the nap, as the caffeine takes effect right when you wake up. up, potentially offering a more refreshing experience.”
No matter how many candles there are on your next birthday cake, we should all prioritize adequate rest. We know that developing healthy routines like regular bedtimes, avoiding too much caffeine and binge-watching late-night TV, and getting adequate physical activity are the best options for a better night’s sleep, even if it’s easier said than done. Our culture often views aging as a failure and sleep as something for the weak. But the reality is that our bodies change over time. That doesn’t mean that once you hit your AARP era, you can suddenly function well with 5 hours of free time. On the other hand, if you want to feel younger, you may need to sleep more.