Sleep Through the Decades
How sleep changes with age, once you're an adult.
Better Health, Better Sleep
As your health improves, your sleep improves -- and vice versa.
“There’s a strong bidirectional relationship between sleep and health,” Simpson says. “That’s particularly true of heart conditions like high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and heart failure.”
The amount of sleep adults get in general has been declining over the past few years.
“If you look at the 1960s and 1970s, people reported average sleep times of 8-8.5 hours a night,” Simpson says. “Today, it’s much more likely to be 7-7.5 hours or less."
Chalk it up to the pace of modern life.
"We lead these frantic lives and we have busy jobs and kids and soccer practice," Simpson says. "Sleep is what tends to get left out, but that has a lot of ramifications for our overall health.”
Why Does Grandpa Nap All Day?
By the time we reach our senior years, we may have more time for sleep -- but once again, we’re not getting it.
There’s a general notion that the elderly need less sleep, but that may not be true, says Simpson, who’s just completed a review of the literature on sleep and aging.
“It turns out that they do get less sleep, but it’s not necessarily because they need less,” he says. “To some extent, their sleep is frustrated by all the issues of aging -- a bad hip, a sore back, heart trouble, a knee that’s out of whack.”
Older people also have a tendency to develop something called advanced sleep-phase syndrome, in which the whole rhythm of their circadian clock is off.
“They go to bed much earlier in the evening and wake up much earlier in the morning,” Simpson says. “The system becomes deregulated and loose, and they kind of unlearn the rhythms of sleep.”
Basically, the elderly revert back to the sleep schedule and patterns of very young children.
“They also wake up many more times during the night than younger adults,” Chokroverty says. “This is why they take naps during the day.”
One way to treat this problem is with bright light therapy in the morning and early evening.
“A good blast of sunlight in the late afternoon and early evening, combined with a little exercise, seems to help people push their clock later and, in turn, wake up later,” Simpson says.
Women, Men, and Sleep
For men, sleep problems tend to get progressively worse with age.
“Primary sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, circadian rhythm disturbances, and things like restless legs syndrome-they all are worse in the 30s than in the 20s, worse in the 40s than in the 30s, and so on,” Simpson says. “For men, it’s more or less a linear progression.”