When it comes to myths about sleep, this one refuses to nod off -- and stay asleep. Contrary to popular opinion, older people don't need less sleep than the average person. In fact, adults require about the same amount of sleep from their 20s into old age, although the number of hours per night varies from person to person. But many older adults get much less sleep than they need, for a variety of reasons.
Take Harry Gaertner, a 68-year-old retiree from Richardson, Texas. He remembers first being extremely tired and having difficulty sleeping six years ago. "I had to have 10 hours of sleep and an hour nap every day," he recalls. Gaertner's wife also noticed he was snoring heavily. A trip to the doctor resulted in a sleep apnea diagnosis and a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. But Gaertner says, "the machine didn't work, so that meant something else was wrong."
A trip to the ER revealed what that something else was: Gaertner needed a pacemaker to correct his heart rhythm. He now has a guaranteed pulse of 60 beats per minute, which helps him sleep and breathe easier. But Gaertner's heart issues were only partially to blame for his restless nights. He still suffered from sleep apnea, so he resumed use of the CPAP machine and now dozes more comfortably than he has in years.
Sleep deprivation and seniors
Many older sleepers have sleep deprivation that is just as debilitating, if not as complex, as Gaertner's. "Insomnia is more common for seniors, partly because of health issues, partly because of the anxiety and the concerns of aging, and sometimes because of medication," says Jack Gardner, MD, a neurologist certified in sleep medicine at the Sleep Center at Baylor Medical Center in Waxahachie, Texas. Gardner adds that the likelihood of sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome also increases with age. Frequent urination and the pain from arthritis are more common, too, and rob sleep from seniors.
Another reason for senior snooze troubles lies in a big difference between younger and older sleepers: the timing of rest. As adults age, advanced sleep phase syndrome sets in, causing the body's internal clock to adjust to earlier bed and wakeup times. But some seniors continue to stay up late, as they did in their younger years. Sleep deprivation is often the result.
Bottom line: It's important to find the root cause of sleepless nights, especially if, as in Gaertner's case, sleep issues are masking deeper medical problems. "See your doctor if you're not getting restful sleep at night and are unable to wake up refreshed," Gardner says. "Healthy sleep is something one should expect at all ages."
Tips for getting more sleep
If you're having trouble sleeping, try these techniques for getting more shut-eye:
Get set. Wake up at the same hour every day and exercise and eat meals at set times to help get sleep back on track.
Get sun. No matter your age, daylight is extremely important because it helps regulate the sleep/wake cycle. Spend as much time as possible outdoors or near sunlight.
Get checked. Medication can interrupt sleep. A doctor can recommend adjusting the timing or dose, or possibly switching to an alternative prescription.