Despite the common belief that sleep quality diminishes with age, a new study published in the March edition of Sleep found that sleep quality actually improves as we get older, even as the amount of sleep we get diminishes.
Using phone surveys of more than 150,000 Americans, researchers found that people in their 80s had the fewest complaints about sleep disturbances and daytime fatigue compared to other age groups. Those who reported poor sleep were often suffering from health problems and depression, and women said they had more sleep disturbances and were more tired than men. The quality of sleep improved throughout the life span, although there was a small increase in sleep difficulties during middle age.
While older adults in this study reported having less trouble sleeping, previous research has found that the total amount of sleep generally decreased with age by around 10 minutes per decade. The same research also found that older adults experienced less slow-wave sleep, considered by some experts to be “good” sleep.
The study is significant, because it highlights the difference between what we perceive when we assess someone’s sleep and what they tell us when we ask about their sleep. Just because someone isn’t sleeping the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep doesn’t necessarily mean that they are suffering. Study authors suggest that perhaps pain or long-term health issues take precedence over concerns about sleep.
Sleep problems may also affect various age groups in different ways. Younger people may experience stressors not affecting adults in their 80s, such as those associated with work or raising children. Another study found that people had less stress and slept more soundly after they’re retired! Exposure to technology and “screens” may also inhibit the sleep of the younger generations.
The study raises some important points on sleep. Younger adults should know that they are most likely to experience sleep problems, so they should prioritize sleep. Middle aged adults, especially women, should expect an increase in sleep disturbances, but should rest assured that these will diminish over time (unless there is a health issue such as sleep apnea).
Older adults should know that increasing age should not necessarily mean increasing fatigue, and if they do become excessively tired, they should notify their health practitioner, as there is likely an underlying cause.
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