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How Your Sleep Needs Change with Age

by Dr. Robert Rosenberg, medical adviser to SoClean

If you’ve noticed that your need for sleep has lessened as you age, or if you have more trouble sleeping than you used to, take heart: Some changes to sleeping patterns are part of the normal aging process. In fact, it’s interesting to see how recommendations for healthy sleep duration drop throughout a lifetime. The National Sleep Foundation, partnering with medical experts from across disciplines, has issued the following ranges1 for optimal sleep times in a 24-hour period:

  • Newborns (0 to 3 months): 14 to 17 hours
  • Infants (4 to 11 months): 12 to 15 hours
  • Toddlers (1 to 2 years): 11 to 14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3 to 5): 10 to 13 hours
  • School-age children (6 to 13): 9 to 11 hours
  • Teenagers (14 to 17): 8 to 10 hours
  • Younger adults (18 to 25): 7 to 9 hours
  • Adults (26 to 64): 7 to 9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): 7 to 8 hours

If you’re sleeping significantly less than the recommended range for your age group, it’s worth a deeper dive to pinpoint the cause and to ensure you’re getting the sleep you need for a healthy body and mind. (If you’re sleeping longer than these ranges,2 that could also be an issue you want to dig into with the help of a medical professional.)

Let’s look at typical sleep deprivation issues in three of these age groups.

Teenagers

The teen years can be a particularly difficult time to get enough sleep, and sleep deprivation is a chronic problem3 that can have disastrous effects on mood, behavior, impulse control, learning and athletic performance. Teenagers tend to have busy schedules and active social lives that produce tremendous pressure to stay up late—and often on blue-light-emitting devices that further interfere with sleep.

In addition to environmental pressures, hormonal modifications associated with puberty are thought to produce what’s called a "phase delay,"4 the tendency of the body to delay its biological rhythms, including sleeping and waking times. Most high schools and middle schools, however, operate on early schedules, setting up teenagers for years of sleep deprivation.

This problem often reverses in adulthood, but if it’s causing serious issues, it’s a good idea for teens to practice sleep hygiene,5 get as much sunshine as possible in the morning, and avoid light-producing devices in the evening hours.

Adults

If you’re between the ages of 26 and 64 and having trouble getting seven hours of sleep per night, it’s possible you might be a night owl trapped in an early bird world.6 Another major factor for women in this age range is hormonal change: Menopause and perimenopause can reduce the levels of hormones in the body, that can contribute to a variety of sleep disorders.7

Other issues that commonly inhibit sleep: job stress, parenting young children, certain medications, shift work, depression and anxiety, alcohol use, caffeine, and eating too close to bedtime. If you’ve ruled out these obvious causes and still suffer from insomnia or short sleep duration, it’s a good idea to have your doctor check for sleep disorders or other health problems.

Older adults

Over the age of 65, sleep patterns change even in normal, healthy aging.8 One common pattern is that we see a reversal of the circadian rhythm changes of the teen years, and elderly people tend to want to go to sleep at 7 or 8 p.m., which might lead to them wakening at 3 a.m. This can be very uncomfortable, especially with a bed partner on a different schedule.

A lot of comorbidities also come into play in this age range, and other types of sleep issues become much more common. The resulting lack of sleep can be devastating for memory and executive function and is emerging as a risk factor for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.9

The solution is to try to get at the underlying causes of the sleep disturbance, many of which are treatable or reversible. Possibilities to discuss with your doctor include restless leg syndrome, depression or anxiety, obesity, medications, disordered breathing, arthritis or chronic pain, and even cataracts or macular degeneration (which reduce the amount of light that hits the retina during the day).

Sleep patterns change with age but always check with your doctor to rule out any underlying conditions.

Want to learn more about sleep? Read our blog post about five common misconceptions about sleep.

Notes:

  1. "National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times," National Sleep Foundation, February 2015. 
  2. "Finding the Sweet Spot: How Many Hours of Sleep Is Best?," Dr. Robert S. Rosenberg.
  3. "Among teens, sleep deprivation an epidemic," Stanford Medicine, October 2015. 
  4. "The adolescence sleep phase delay: causes, consequences and possible interventions," Sleep Science, June 2008. 
  5. "Sleep Hygiene," National Sleep Foundation. 
  6. "Is It Better to Be a Night Owl or an Early Bird?," SoClean blog, August 28, 2020.
  7. "Menopause and Sleep," National Sleep Foundation. 
  8. "Sleep in Normal Aging," Sleep Medicine Clinics, March 2018. 
  9. "Impact of Sleep on the Risk of Cognitive Decline and Dementia," Current Opinion in Psychiatry, November 2014. 

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