Caring Currents

Seniors May Need Less Sleep

Last updated:

August 06, 2008

You know that old adage about the elderly needing less shut-eye than younger adults? Well, recent research suggests it may be true.

To get a handle on the relationship between sleep and age, sleep scientists observed the slumber patterns of 35 men and women between the ages of 18 and 32 and 18 seniors between the ages of 60 and 72.

Study subjects were required to lie in bed for 16 hours a day. (Sheer bliss for some, no doubt, boredom for those who lay awake wide-eyed and restless). The participants lay prone for 12 hours at night and for 4 during the day for three to seven days.

During the observation period, the young adults slept more than normal. The older group slept 1.5 hours less per day on average and took longer to nod off than the younger set.

It's too soon to know for sure, but researchers speculate that what many elderly and their caregivers (both personal and professional) label insomnia could be a completely normal, age-related shift in their internal body clock. Simply put: Our drive and desire for sleep may drop off as we enter our twilight years.

That theory makes some intuitive sense: By and large, seniors expend less energy than younger adults (so they need less rest). Older folks tend to favor daytime napping too, which may explain a reduced need for sleep at night.

These findings could impact the way insomnia is treated in the elderly. For starters:

An older person doesn't automatically need to pop a sleeping pill if he's not clocking eight hours or more in the bedroom each night.

Quality of sleep, as evidenced by feeling rested, refreshed, and energized in the morning, may be more important clues than actual hours logged in the Land of Nod, when determining the sleep hygiene of seniors.

Naturally, no one wants their parents taking unnecessary medications. So try to gauge whether your folks are getting enough zzzs by asking how they feel upon waking up and during the course of the day.

Of course, if your parents complain of feeling tired all day, are grumpy, forgetful, accident prone, or depressed, or have difficulty staying awake during the day, it's smart to get a sleep evaluation by their doctor to tease out what may be interfering with their ability to get a good night's rest. The National Institute on Aging also offers suggestions for helping ensure seniors sleep well.

Image by Flickr user Catherine used under the Creative Commons attribution license.