Women Over 50: How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?
I’ve heard it said that we don’t need as much sleep as we get older.
Some research seems to support the idea. When asked to stay in bed for 16 hours in the dark each day, younger people (18 to 32 years) slept an average of 9 hours, whereas older people (60 to 76 years) slept an average of only 7.5 hours.
The elderly may need less sleep, the scientists theorized, though they did say more research needed to be done.
Other experts have agreed with this theory, stating that sleep changes from childhood to adulthood into older age. Whereas an infant may require 16 to 20 hours a day, a young child needs only 11 or 12. Adolescents feel best on about 9 hours, and adults seem to do well on 7-8.
But what about seniors?
A new study challenges the idea that we don’t need as much sleep in our golden years. Researchers agreed that older adults often don’t sleep as well as younger adults, and looked into the various reasons why. Turns out that it’s not that seniors need less sleep, but instead, that they have more trouble getting the sleep they need.
Meanwhile, lack of sleep in the elderly seems to be just as dangerous as it is for younger adults. It increases risk of memory loss and other health problems, which means that even older adults need a good 7-8 hours for lasting vitality and well being.
What if you’re having trouble doing sleeping? We’ve got some tips for you below.
We’re Having More Trouble Sleeping
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that sleeping less than 7 hours a night is associated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, and even mortality. Insufficient sleep also hurts us mentally, reducing productivity, increasing risk of errors, and resulting in more frequent motor vehicle accidents.
The problem is serious, as evidenced by a 2007 study. Researchers analyzed data from over 10,000 participants over a period of 11-17 years, and found that those who cut their sleeping from 7 hours a night to 5 hours or less faced a 1.7-fold increased risk in mortality from all causes, and twice the increased risk of death from a cardiovascular problem.
Findings were similar in a 2010 study review. Researchers looked at data from 16 studies including over one million participants, and found that short duration of sleep was associated with greater risk of death.
Yet despite being aware that we need a good night’s sleep, we’re still having trouble getting it. In 2015, the CDC went so far as to call insufficient sleep a “public health problem,” referencing studies that show Americans are just not getting enough shut-eye. Data from a 2009 study showed that among over 74,000 adults across 12 states:
- 35.3 percent reported getting less than 7 hours of sleep during a typical 24-hour period
- 48 percent reported snoring
- 37.9 percent reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month
- 4.7 percent reported nodding off while driving at least once in the preceding month
The National Health Interview Survey found that nearly 30 percent of adults were sleeping less than 6 hours a day, and in a 2013 Gallup Poll, 40 percent of Americans reported getting less than 7 hours a night.
Why are we having so much trouble?
Seniors Have Trouble Sleeping Because of Health Issues
A number of characteristics of our modern-day lifestyles have been blamed for disrupting sleep. These include technology, electricity, work schedules, and more.
We know, for example, that using smartphones, tablets, and computers before bed can mess with our sleep hormones and disrupt deep REM sleep. Electricity allows us to have lights on all night long, and light signals the brain to stay awake. Shift work and graveyard shifts can also disrupt sleep and sleep quality, leading to hormonal shifts that affect our health.
Seniors often have even more factors working against them. Researchers reported in 2017 that adults in their 50s and older often experience the following sleep changes:
- Earlier bedtimes and rise times
- Taking longer to fall asleep
- Shorter overall sleep duration
- More awakenings, arousals, and transitions to lighter sleep stages
- More fragile sleep—more likely to be awakened
- Reduced amount of deeper REM sleep
- Increased time spent awake throughout the night
Researchers noted that some older adults will sleep just fine—these problems aren’t characteristic of everyone. Rather, these are symptoms adults may experience as they age, with some experiencing dramatic changes in sleep patterns.
In a 2012 study, researchers found that it wasn’t age, alone, causing the problem. Instead, it was other health problems like pain, respiratory issues, and depression that seemed to make sleeping more difficult. A number of factors can cause these issues:
- Medications: Seniors are more likely to be taking medications, and many can disrupt sleep. The AARP notes that high blood pressure pills, corticosteroids, antidepressants, antihistamines, statins, and even dietary supplements designed to relieve joint pain can all cause insomnia.
- Respiratory problems: Asthma, COPD, sleep apnea, chronic sinus infections, and other respiratory issues can easily interfere with sleep as they make it harder to breathe.
- Pain: Any sort of pain, including muscle and joint pain, can keep you up at night.
- Depression: Older adults are much more susceptible to depression and anxiety than we realized. Loss of loved ones, changes in working status, lack of social support, health problems and more can lead to emotional difficulties. Depression is a common cause of insomnia.
- Alcohol: Older adults may use alcohol to help them fall asleep, and it usually does do that effectively. The problem is that it interferes with deep “REM” sleep, causing people to wake up later or experience a restless night’s sleep.
- Dementia: Cognitive problems are strongly tied to sleep issues.
- Heartburn: Both heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD) disturb restful sleep.
- Restless leg syndrome: Waking up with your legs kicking is never a pleasant sensation, but one that many seniors have to deal with. It can make it difficult to go to sleep, and may also interrupt sleep in the middle of the night. Estimates are that restless leg syndrome affects 10-35 percent of those over the age of 65, and is more common in women than men.
- Hormonal changes: In women especially, hormonal changes associated with menopause can interfere with quality sleep. Estrogen deficiency has been found in some studies to contribute to the sleep problems women start to experience in their perimenopausal period.
- Bladder problems: Urinary incontinence can lead to disrupted sleep as seniors have to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Do Seniors Need as Much Sleep as Younger Adults?
Scientists now believe that older adults need their seven hours a night just as much as younger adults. They came to that conclusion by looking at what happens to seniors who don’t get the usual 7-8 hours. Turns out that sleep deprivation can be just as dangerous if not more so for older people.
Sleep problems and insomnia simply reduce quality of life for older adults. A 2008 study found that impaired sleep was associated with declines in social functioning and memory. It affected self-confidence and reduced ability to carry out regular daily activities. It even affected participants’ ability to have healthy and stable relationships with their spouses, friends, and loved ones.
Getting a good night’s sleep has been connected with helping to cement learning and memory, and it’s no different in older adults. Lack of sleep is associated with worse cognitive function in seniors, and worse performance in learning and long-term memory consolidation. It’s just because the people are older, either. No matter what our age, we need our sleep to stay mentally sharp.
Sleep and mental function are so tightly related that researchers reported in 2014 that the less older adults sleep, the faster their brains age. Lead researcher Dr. June low stated that short sleep was a marker of brain aging, and that seven hours a day was the sweet spot for cognitive functioning.
There are other problems associated with not getting enough sleep as we age. The National Institutes of Health states that not sleeping well can lead to depressed mood, excessive daytime sleepiness, more nighttime falls, and overall poorer quality of life in older adults. They add that poor sleep is not a normal part of aging.
“Nearly every disease killing us later in life has a causal link to lack of sleep,” said Matthew Walker, study author and UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience, adding that sleep deterioration in older age has been linked to obesity, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Indeed, getting a good night’s sleep on most nights may be a literal fountain of youth for seniors. It not only helps improve memory and cognitive function, but refreshes the immune system, improves mood, supports cellular repair, and helps the body heal faster. It can also help reduce risk of disease, support a healthy weight, and improve quality of life for years to come.
10 Tips to Help You Sleep Better
If you or a loved one is having trouble sleeping, try these tips to leave insomnia behind and enjoy better health no matter what your age. Avoid sleeping pills, as they can cause serious side effects and don’t address the underlying cause of insomnia. Some studies have shown they can even make it worse in the long run.
- Switch medications: Ask your doctor about the medications you’re taking. If you suspect one of these may be interfering with your sleep, you may be able to take something similar that won’t affect you as much. Changing the dose or the time of day you take the medication could also help.
- Ask your doctor: If you suspect that you or a loved one may be experiencing memory problems, check with your doctor for a diagnosis. If you’re seeing the early signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s, early treatment can help delay the progression, and may also lead to better sleep. Urinary problems, GERD, respiratory issues, restless leg syndrome, and more should all be discussed with your doctor to determine how you can improve your sleep.
- Consider sleep therapy: If you have sleep apnea or other respiratory issues that make it harder to sleep well, ask your doctor about therapy options. CPAP therapy for sleep apnea has shown to be very effective, and supplemental oxygen may also be helpful in some instances. Even a humidifier may make it easier for you to breathe at night.
- Ease your pain: If you have pain keeping you up at night, look for solutions. Over-the-counter pain relievers are only one option. Acupuncture, massage, injections, and other types of pain relief have shown to be very effective depending on the type of pain you have. Most areas now have pain relief clinics that can help you find the right solution for your discomfort.
- Use tea: A number of herbal teas can help you relax and go to sleep more easily, and unlike alcohol, they won’t interfere with your deep sleep. Try chamomile, lemon balm, valerian root, lavender, skullcap, rooibos, and passionflower.
- Go to bed on an empty stomach: Particularly if you have trouble with heartburn, give yourself at least three hours between your last meal and bedtime. Try to do most of your digesting before you lie down to avoid uncomfortable symptoms that can keep you awake. If you still have trouble, prop your head up with an extra pillow.
- Exercise daily: Exercise helps work your body so your muscles are tired and more ready to sleep. Being sedentary, on the other hand, leads to a restless body and mind. Try to be sure you’re getting in at least a 30-minute walk every day. Going for 45 minutes is even better. Regular strength straining is also good for improving sleep quality as well as muscle strength and balance.
- Improve your sleep environment: Many people have trouble sleeping because they have a poor sleeping environment. Make sure your mattress is supportive and comfortable. If it’s over 8 years old, consider replacing it. Keep the room very dark—use heavy, dark drapes and avoid excess lighting. Keep the television out of the bedroom, along with all computers, tablets, and smartphones. Don’t overheat the room—we sleep better when it’s slightly cool.
- Practice a before-bed routine: What you do before you go to bed can significantly affect your quality of sleep. Try not to eat at least a few hours before bedtime. If you get the munchies, go for a very small snack that is soothing, like yogurt, a small bowl of cereal, or a few pears or piece of whole-grain toast. Turn all the technology off at least an hour before bedtime, and engage in a relaxing activity like reading, taking a warm bath, or meditating. Turn down the lights and perform some light stretches to ease muscle tension. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on the weekends.
- Get out in the sun: Our exposure to sunlight helps set our circadian rhythms, which in turn, help us to feel sleepy at the right time. Older adults are often indoors a lot. Try to be sure that you get outside for at least 30 minutes a day to soak up some sunshine.
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