An expert explains why your sleep schedule changes over time.

By Lauren Wellbank
September 01, 2020
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As the years pass, getting plenty of restorative sleep remains as important as ever—consider it the first prong in a triangle of overall wellness, along with a well-rounded diet and regular exercise. It is normal, however, for your sleep patterns to change as you age. Ultimately, you likely won't experience the same extended rest as you did in your 20s, notes Dr. Boris Dubrovsky of NYMetroSleep. Here, he explains what to expect from your slumber over time.

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The idea that older folks need less sleep is false.

"There is no good evidence that older individuals need less sleep, but people over about 60 to 65 seem to produce less sleep," Dr. Dubrovsky explains, adding that a slightly shorter total sleep time is to be expected during this time. "Another thing that happens is that the continuity of sleep starts to decline and sleep becomes more spread out, with more frequent and longer awakenings. Therefore, it may take longer time in bed to get the same, or slightly lesser amount of sleep."

You might wake up earlier.

Dr. Dubrovsky notes that while amount of sleep is one quantifier, the timing of rest is another. "With older age, the circadian cycle usually shifts earlier and people wake up early naturally, which may create an impression that older people 'need' less sleep," he continues. "On the other hand, some sleep from the night may be displaced into the day in the form of napping, or going to bed very early, which may create an impression of 'needing' more sleep. In fact, both things are two sides of the same coin."

Bouncing back from a sleep debt becomes more challenging.

A 30-year-old can pull an all-nighter and function passably the next day—or jet travel across the world and be ready for the next adventure upon landing. For a person in their 60s, however, this is virtually impossible. "On the other hand, a 60-year-old can sleep about six hours a night on a regular schedule, perform well during the day, and be up at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning as usual, ready for a weekend trip," Dr. Dubrovsky counters. "But a 30-year-old—after sleeping six hours during the work week—will most likely crash for nine to 10 hours over the weekend.

Aim for at least six to seven hours of sleep per night.

You'll notice that the goal nightly tally isn't much different from the general recommendation. "The ideal amount is roughly the same for older people, maybe slightly lower, at about six-and-a-half to seven hours, instead of about seven-and-a-half to eight for young adults," he says. "It is best to think of it as two greatly overlapping normal curves, with the 'younger' average a bit higher than the 'older' one."

Your activity level greatly impacts the length and quality of your sleep.

"Consistent physical activity, as well as spending sufficient time outdoors, are two very important, controllable factors that help maintain quality and quantity of sleep with advancing age," says Dr. Dubrovsky, noting that physical activity does not need to be strenuous, but consistent. And pay attention to when you decide to get moving, as well. "For older individuals, especially those who develop an uncomfortably early pattern (falling asleep at about 8 to 9 p.m. and waking up at 3 or 4 a.m.), physical activity and outdoor sunlight may work better in the afternoon," he explains.

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