You can consider it an old wives tale or something that gray-haired ladies weave while power-knitting: the older you get, the less sleep you need. That sounds like a rare and significant pro of aging, being able to be energized for longer hours. It also sounds… extremely not real. While I do remember my grandma up-and-at-’em around 6 a.m. each day, and I also remember her out cold on the couch, head toppled backwards. So do you need less sleep as you get older? Or is YiaYia a liar?
Well, first off, there’s at least an element to truth, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Our needs definitely do change as we age. When you’re a fresh-out-of-the-oven newborn to 3 months old, you require something like 14 to 17 hours a day. Diaper-bound infants need more like 12 to 15 hours a day. Toddlers to kindergartners need 11 to 15 hours a day, hence the mid-day break of nap time. It slims to nine and 11 hours of sleep until you hit your teens, and it’s more like eight to 10 hours. Seven to nine hours is the recommended number for adults (I know, I’m giggling, too), and that’s the same once you’re 65 or older. So, yes, technically you do need less sleep as you get older.
But the reason why you factually get and function on less sleep has nothing to do with becoming an incredibly spry elder who really wants to be up at the crack of dawn. Rather, our patterns simply change, and we get more shallow rest compared to that subterranean deep REM goodness. Likewise, it’s more common to go back to our kindergarten habits and catch a quick nap on the sly.
“As we age, we tend to have less deep sleep, with more broken sleep and awakenings throughout the night,” says sleep expert Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. “Naps and dozing occur more throughout the day as well. When taken into account, an average older adult should get approximately the same amount of sleep as he or she did normally before aging, maybe half an hour to an hour less. And this is because the new, extra broken sleep in the middle of the night is made up for by those little naps.”
Sure enough, you want to pay attention attention if you or an older loved one is finding themselves with a shattered snooze schedule.
“If someone is older and starts to have significantly less sleep than before, way worse quality, many awakenings and the feeling that sleep is generally not restorative, an evaluation with a doctor would be warranted,” says Dr. Harris. “Sleep apnea is very common here!”
Regardless of age, there’s a few things you can do to get yourself back on track if you’re not sure if you’re getting enough sleep. It requires a little discipline, and maybe some PTO, but it’s worth a shot.
“Go on vacation or take a week off where you do not need to wake to an alarm,” says Dr Harris. “Instead, go to bed every night at your usual bedtime and note when you naturally awaken in the morning. Average together the total rest time for days four through seven—ignore the first few days because you’re likely paying back a good deal of sleep debt.”
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