It’s a common refrain that older people need less sleep, contentedly staying up until the wee hours or cheerfully waking up long before everyone else. Yet it’s simply not true.
“That is actually a myth,” said Daniel A. Barone, M.D., an assistant professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medical School and the coauthor of Let’s Talk About Sleep. “What happens is that as we get older, our ability to stay asleep does go down.”
If a person needed eight hours of sleep at 30, he still needs that much at 70. But roughly half of older adults report problems with insomnia, according to the American Psychological Association. Sleep troubles have been linked to health problems such as cardiovascular issues and depression. For many older adults, a good night’s sleep is increasingly elusive, the result of an unfortunate mix of changes that happen as we age and the side effects of health woes that plague us later in life.
As we get older, the quality of the sleep we get decreases. In our 50s our ability to produce melatonin, a powerful sleep hormone, may begin to slow. And our circadian clock, the internal meter that tells us when to go to bed and when to get up, often shifts earlier when we age, sending us to bed in the early evening and awakening us in the early hours, whether we want to get up at that time or not.
Many age-related health problems, and the medications taken to treat them, also make it harder to get quality shut-eye. An enlarged prostate may send you to the bathroom all night long. Menopausal hot flashes may cause rest-ruining hot flashes. Sleep apnea, for which people are at higher risk of at age 40 and older, disrupts slumber. Chronic pain, too, may make it difficult to get comfortable enough to fall asleep. And eye conditions like macular degeneration can affect our circadian rhythm.
“As we get older, things get more complicated and our system itself is going to be compromised,” said Michael J. Breus, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist. “The quality of that sleep is going to be less.”
Anyone who’s ever carried a sleeping baby from a car seat to a crib knows that infants fall into deep slumbers. That kind of sleep, known as slow-wave sleep, represents a rebalancing function for the brain. Slow-wave sleep increases in response to the amount of prior wakefulness. As we age, this sleep state seems to decline.
“Older people are not as able to generate as much slow-wave sleep as young people,” said W. Vaughn McCall, M.D., chair of the department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior of the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.