Older adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. It’s a misconception that as we get older, our sleep needs decline.
However, it can be harder for men and women ages 65+ years to stay asleep throughout the night. A 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll found that older people were more likely to say they wake up a lot during the night (39 percent, vs. 24 percent of 18-29 year olds, 31 percent of 30-49 year olds, and 33 percent of 50-54 year olds). On the high side, older adults were more likely to report getting a good night’s sleep every night or almost every night (60 percent of those over 65, versus 38 percent of 18-29 year olds, 44 percent of 30-49 year olds, and 52 percent of 50-54 year olds), and less likely to say they woke up feeling unrefreshed. In other words, even though aging seems to make certain aspects of sleep more difficult, many older adults say they still feel good during the day.
There are certain biological changes that make sleep more difficult as we age. For example, older adults can experience a shift in circadian rhythm that causes them to become sleepy in the early evening and to wake up too early in the morning. Indeed, the 2005 NSF poll found that 64 percent of adults over 65 consider themselves a “morning person.”
Medical conditions and other sleep disorders can also cause insomnia. For example, health issues such as gastrointestinal and respiratory problems can disrupt sleep. Sleep apnea—in which a person briefly but repeatedly stops breathing during sleep—can also cause insomnia.
It’s important to talk to your doctor if you regularly have trouble sleeping or feel unrefreshed or fatigued during the day. Small changes in sleep habits—such as stopping napping or moving the timing of your naps, as well as cutting back on caffeine—can help. If your insomnia is related to a medical or psychiatric condition, it’s important to review this with your doctor and decide on a treatment plan. In some cases, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, a prescription sleep aid, or both may be recommended. You can discuss these options with your doctor or get a referral to a doctor who specializes in sleep for more comprehensive treatment.