How Sleep Changes Throughout Your Life

From the WebMD Archives

You’re wide awake at 2 a.m. and trying to remember the last time you had a good night’s sleep. You remember sleeping well -- and a lot -- when you were young. Since then, you started working, had children, and perhaps moved into menopause. Having trouble sleeping is just part of getting older, right?

Well, yes and no. How much sleep you need, your ability to get enough sleep, and the quality of your sleep changes a lot throughout your life. But you shouldn’t compromise your sleep habits just because you’re getting older.

General Sleep Needs

“Sleep needs vary from individual to individual, and changes can occur at any stage in the lifespan,” says Michael Vitiello, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. The amount of sleep you need is the number of hours necessary to wake up without an alarm, refreshed and alert.

But many adults find themselves stealing only a few hours of sleep each night during busy work weeks. Is that OK?

“A big myth is that people can learn to adapt to only five or six hours of sleep and they’re functioning ‘fine,’” says Donna Arand, PhD, clinical director of the Kettering Sleep Disorder Center in Dayton, Ohio and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “People aren’t functioning fine with five or six hours of sleep. You really don’t adapt to that. Most adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep.”

It’s not clear yet whether adults 65 years and older need seven to eight hours of sleep. One poll found that seniors felt like they needed more sleep than that. There’s no evidence that older people can function well on less, but some recent studies indicate that they might.

“There is probably a small reduction in total sleep time that occurs across the lifespan,” Vitiello says. “Most of that probably occurs after puberty and by retirement age, say in the 60s. If you make it into your 60s or 70s and you stay healthy, your sleep probably doesn’t change as much.”

Are you getting the sleep you need? You might require more sleep if you:

  • Need a stimulant like coffee to wake up or get going
  • Feel down, irritable, or tense after not getting enough sleep
  • Have poor short-term memory
  • Have a hard time staying focused and productive after you’ve been sitting for awhile