Do We Really Need Less Sleep as We Get Older?

SleepI don’t know when I heard it, but somewhere along the way someone told me that as we get older, we need less sleep. I always felt kind of skeptical about this. As I’ve gotten older I can say for certain that I get less sleep. But need? I think I need as much as I ever did.

So I felt vindicated when I read this article, “Getting less than six hours sleep a night increases risk of early death.” General, I hate articles that raise fears about risk of early death because, frankly, so many things seem to increase that risk. But it makes sense to me that consistently getting inadequate sleep can compromise our health.

The article begins with an alarming pair of statistics:

Over a third of the population are getting less than six hours sleep a night raising their risk of an early death by 12 per cent.

They link lack of sleep to increased risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. There is actually a hormonal change when we don’t get enough sleep–it leads to stress, which puts pressure on the heart:

Not sleeping releases hormones that increase stress levels and in turn speed up the heart rate and raise blood pressure sparking a host of health issues.

Not only that, there is a risk of some mental health consequences as well:

Research suggests that routinely getting less than six hours sleep a night can impact attention, concentration and memory and is also linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

And then there’s this idea that is kicking around that we need less sleep as we get older.  See this article, “Older Adults Need Less Sleep.”  According to the research reported there:

new research in the U.K. confirms previous indications that older people need less sleep. It also suggests that variations in sleep hours needed are normal and healthy — so long as one is not overly sleepy during the day.

“Healthy aging appears to be associated with reductions in the sleep duration and depth required to maintain daytime alertness,” the scientists said in a statement.

According to the UK study on a group of people who did not have any sleep disorders, people get less sleep as they get older. Here’s the chart:

During the first night with eight hours in bed, the resulting average sleep time, by age group:

Age 20-30: 433.5 minutes (7.23 hours)
Age 40-55: 409.9 minutes (6.83 hours)
Age 66-83: 390.4 minutes (6.51 hours)

Now, this was in a lab, so they’ve qualified their findings with a statement that these times are not necessarily “normal.” The key finding is the difference between age groups:

The researchers do not suggest that these times, achieved during lab conditions much different from real life, are normal. But the comparison between groups is what’s interesting, with the oldest group snoozing about 20 minutes less than the middle-agers, who in turn slept about 23 minutes less than the youngest group. The amount of time spent in deep sleep, measured as “slow-wave sleep,” was also less in the older groups.

What about naps? Do older adults nap more (or need to nap more?)? I’ve always welcomed an afternoon nap. To me, it’s an all-ages indulgence. Here’s what they found about naps:

Daytime sleepiness was measured by asking the subjects to nap, which count in tallying your overall sleep, said study leader Derk-Jan Dijk, professor of sleep and physiology at the University of Surrey in the U.K. (Previous research has shown that naps are good for you.)

“But, we need to be careful; naps very late in the day may make you feel better for the remainder of the waking day but also disrupt your subsequent night time sleep episode,” Dijk told LiveScience.

When participants were asked to lie in bed and try to nap, here’s how long it took on average for the members of each group to doze off:

Age 20-30: 8.7 minutes
Age 40-55: 11.7 minutes
Age 66-83: 14.2 minutes

They claim that if you’re sleepy during the day, then you probably need more sleep.  Pretty much all of their studies indicate that older people sleep less, take longer to fall asleep, and given an opportunity to stay in bed for an extended period time will spend less of that time asleep than their younger counterparts.

They recognize that lots of us are actually sleep deprived, but state as their conclusion that:

“The most parsimonious explanation for our results is that older people need less sleep,” said Elizabeth Klerman of Brigham and Women’s Hospital & Harvard Medical School. “It’s also possible that they sleep less even when given the opportunity for more sleep because of age-related changes in the ability to fall asleep and remain asleep.”

But the study about lack of sleep and increased health risk calls these findings into question, at least where the idea of “need” is concerned. As I said up top, maybe we need just as much sleep as ever as we age. We’re just not getting what we need. This is most pressing in the middle-age demographic, not just because so many of us are just really busy, but also because there is this prevalent idea that we actually need less sleep.

Recognizing that the 40-60 age group are the most afflicted by inadequate sleep, Public Health England is starting a new campaign aimed at that age group:

Focusing on middle-aged people the new campaign will ask people to make seven lifestyle changes including stopping smoking, drinking less, exercising more and improving sleep.

Describing the new campaign Public Health England said in a document released last month: “Only around 20-30 per cent of what we think of as “ageing” is biological; the rest is “decay” or “deterioration”, which can be actively managed or prevented.”

“The years between ages 40 and 60 are thus a unique but neglected opportunity for intervention.”

So do we need less sleep, more sleep, or the same?

Artis said: “It’s a myth that older people need less sleep. Middle-aged people need the same amount of sleep, even if they don’t get it in one big block like people in their 20s and 30s. It may mean that people catch up on their sleep with an afternoon nap.”

It may be harder to get that same amount all in a stretch. I know that while I used to put my head down on the pillow, fall asleep within a few minutes, and stay sleeping until dawn, it’s not like that for me anymore. It’s a relief to know that I can make up for some of those losses with naps, though the afternoon nap is still a luxury that is not possible in my regular work day and not likely on a busy weekend.

Still and all, it’s helpful to have this information because it reassures me that when I’m feeling tired, there’s a good chance that the explanation is quite simple: I’m not getting enough sleep.

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