January 18th 2020

A Bedtime Story: the Myth That We Need Less Sleep As We Age

It’s no secret that there are the inevitable factors associated with aging – struggling to remember the name of the guy who runs that place near the thing, an unstoppable slide toward a pair of bifocals, and those silvery strands that keep showing up. But not every rumor about aging is true. One of the worst is the notion that we need less sleep as we age. Older people may sleep less, for a variety of reasons, but none of them are because that’s just a natural part of the aging process. In fact, if you’re finding that you are sleeping less, here are some common things that might keep you from your necessary nighttime quota:

Rough nights. Once we’re into our 50s and beyond, certain factors more prevalent among seniors can literally keep us up at night. For example treatments like blood pressure medications act as diuretics, and getting up to go quite literally disrupts your sleep, as you have to get up and then get back to sleep (and then maybe get up again. . .). Maybe even worse is having a hard time getting to sleep in the first place — chronic aches and pains can simply make it difficult to get comfortable enough. Tossing and turning to accommodate that hip, or back, or neck is hardly the stuff of dreams.

Age makes you sensitive. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re getting sensitive just because you’re not as young as you used to be – unless it’s about your sleeping schedule. As we age, the body’s increasingly sensitive circadian rhythms can disrupt your sleep patterns. A study at MIT showed that older mice who had a disruption in their circadian rhythms took longer to return to normal sleep patterns. Since our internal clock greatly impacts our body’s sense of when to awake and when to sleep, getting off schedule is more detrimental. When you were younger you could pull an all-nighter one night, and sleep in the next day, before bouncing back to your old schedule. But as with many things, that “bouncing back” gets tougher as we get older. So, you really are more sensitive. (Sorry.)

Nix the naptime. Here’s one thing you should have aged out of – the afternoon nap. Like cartoons and juice boxes, some things really are child’s play. While retiree life should mean you can take a nap whenever you feel like it, don’t. It can temporarily refresh you during the day, but then make it harder to sleep later. So put away that inviting looking throw and walk away from the comfortable chair. Really.

A full night’s sleep is just as important as it ever was. Take steps to get back those missed minutes. Avoid late night smoking or drinking. Get some afternoon sunlight to stay alert through “naptime”. And when it is time to hit the sack, eliminate distracting lights of television, laptops and phones in the bedroom. Hey, look at it this way — you may not feel as young as you used to, but when it comes to good sleep, you’re ageless.