Eight hours of sleep every night: It’s the rule most of us learned. But, as it turns out, it’s not that simple. Did you know that sleep needs can change as you age? Genetics can also influence your personal sleep needs, causing you to need slightly more or less than your spouse, your best friend or even your child. And the length of time you sleep isn’t necessarily a good indication of how much sleep you get since health, pain, anxiety and a myriad of other factors may influence your ability to fall and stay asleep.
How much sleep do seniors need? And what can you do to maximize the quality of your shuteye? Here are our top tips for improving your sleep.
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How Much Sleep Do Seniors Need?
The average sleep someone requires declines a bit with age. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-8 hours of sleep per night for adults over 65 compared to 7-9 hours for younger adults. So, don’t be surprised if you spend a little less time in bed. But averages don’t reveal much about individuals, so it’s completely normal if you sleep as much as you did before or even if you take advantage of more time in retirement to grab some extra shuteye.
How Sleep Changes as You Age
It’s not just the length of sleep time that shifts as you age. Many older adults begin going to bed earlier and waking earlier. This might mean you need to change your schedule a bit, but it could also afford you a chance to go for a sunrise walk with a friend or play in the garden before it gets too hot each day.
Sleep problems can also become more prevalent. Insomnia tends to increase with age, with 30-48% of older adults experiencing sleep difficulties. This doesn’t mean insomnia is normal, though. In one study, 93% of older adults with insomnia had at least one medical condition that affected their sleep. Insomnia may be both an early warning sign and a result of various medical conditions.
Insomnia can also cause various medical symptoms and make underlying health problems worse. It can cause brain fog and depression and even mimic symptoms of dementia. While it’s normal for your sleep needs to decline a bit with age, if you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or feeling rested, it’s time to see your doctor.
How Sleep Relates to Overall Health
Sleep is vital to well-being at every age. The relationship between sleep and health is bidirectional. This means that poor health can influence sleep, and poor sleep can influence health. If you already have underlying medical conditions, sleeping badly can make them worse. Adults who sleep less than seven hours per night are more likely to report having chronic medical problems, such as heart disease. Chronic conditions can also make your sleep worse, initiating a vicious cycle of worsening health.
Here are some of the many ways sleep can affect health:
Heart health: Poor sleep may correlate with a higher rate of heart disease, atherosclerosis and high blood pressure.
Weight management: Low-quality sleep may make it harder to maintain a healthy weight.
Immune system: Chronic sleep deprivation can weaken your immune system, making it more difficult to fight off infections.
Quality of life: Chronic fatigue can make you feel worse and make it harder to enjoy the activities you love most. Quality sleep ensures you have sufficient energy each day and can help stabilize your mood.
Mental health: Quality sleep can reduce anxiety and depression risk, while poor-quality sleep can exacerbate underlying mental health issues. As you age, inadequate sleep may mimic symptoms of dementia.
Tips for Getting a Better Night’s Sleep
Solving sleep problems can be challenging. Sleeping pills aren’t safe for older adults, who are more sensitive to the effects of these pills. Using medication to sleep can increase your risk of addiction, falls and fractures, and car accidents. These drugs stay in your body longer as you age, so even if you used sleeping pills without a problem when you were younger, it may be time to kick the habit.
Despite these dangers, 1 in 3 older adults use sleeping pills. If you’re among them, work with your doctor on a plan to wean yourself off of them. It's normal to worry that you won’t be able to sleep without them, but most research shows that these medications only very modestly increase the length of sleep.
Cut back on caffeine, including the caffeine in treats such as chocolate. You don’t necessarily have to ditch your morning cup of joe. Instead, try to limit caffeine to the morning hours only.
Exercise during the day. Doing so can help you fall asleep at night and ease anxiety. But avoid working out for at least four hours before bedtime.
Establish a sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day.
Develop a soothing sleep routine that’s the same every night. You might take a bath and then read or listen to your favorite music.
Eliminate daytime naps.
Sleep in a cool, dark room on a comfortable bed. Sometimes changing your mattress, bedding or pillows helps. Blackout curtains may also support better sleep.
Try a white noise machine to drown out ambient noise.
Drink plenty of water during the day, but reduce fluids right before bed so that you don’t need to get up and go to the bathroom.
Develop a plan for managing stress. Meditating, talking to a friend, attending support groups and going to therapy can all make life feel more manageable.
Use your bed only for sleep. If you can’t fall asleep after 15-20 minutes, get up and do something else. This helps your brain associate bed with sleep — not restlessness.
Ask your doctor if you are taking medications that might trigger insomnia.
If insomnia persists after a week or two of lifestyle changes, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Sleep is a vital ingredient in the recipe for a healthy, happy life. It’s one of many lifestyle choices you can make to feel as good as possible. Being well-rested can supply you with the energy you need to spend more time with the people you love most.
Another critical role in maintaining optimal health are strong relationships. Delve deeper into this connection in our latest guide here.