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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Study: Sleep Disturbances Not Linked to Aging

Over-80 Group Reports Fewer Sleep Problems Than Many Young Adults
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 1, 2012 -- Like fine wine, sleep may get better with age.

At least that’s what a study of more than 150,000 adults suggests. According to the new report, many people in their 80s have fewer complaints about their sleep than their younger counterparts.

Although the results are based on self-reports, not objective reports of sleep quality and quantity, "we were very surprised at the findings at first,” says researcher Michael Grandner, PhD, in an email. He is a research associate at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“We expected to see self-reported sleep disturbances and daytime tiredness increase with age. However, what we saw was the opposite," he says.

In the study, 155,877 men and women were asked how they slept and whether or not they were tired during the day. People with health problems and depression were more likely to say their sleep was sub-par. Overall, women reported more sleep problems and fatigue than men.

There seemed to be an uptick in reported sleep problems during middle age -- especially among women, but most participants reported less sleep disturbances as they grew older, the study shows.

“Although specific sleep problems may worsen with age, many older people do not report that their sleep is, overall, worse,” Grandner tells WebMD.

The findings are published in the March issue of Sleep.

Sleep and Age

“Getting older does not necessarily mean that you will experience poor sleep and daytime tiredness,” he says. “If you do experience these things, they may be due to a medical or other issue, and not necessarily a degradation of sleep.”

“Also, those with the worst sleep problems (like many with untreated sleep apnea) may not have survived to old age,” Grandner says.

Healthy Aging Means Healthy Sleep

“If you are an older adult, you should not expect sleep will get worse as you age,” says Shelby Harris, PsyD. She is the director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.

If you are having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or are waking up too early for a month or more, talk to your doctor, Harris tells WebMD. “The earlier you recognize sleep issues, the easier they are to treat -- often without sleeping pills.” Sleep “hygiene,” such as avoiding caffeine and naps and tweaking bed and wake time, may help improve sleep quality.

Michael Breus, PhD, WebMD’s sleep expert and author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan, says, “This is pretty amazing that people who are 80 have fewer sleep complaints than those who are 50.”

According to Breus, “Being healthy in old age may allow for better sleep.”

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