Orlando, Fla. — Older adults need to sleep 7 to 9 hours a night — the same amount as younger folks. Sleeping less (or more) than that can throw off your body’s natural rhythm and make you tired during the day.
Insomnia is a common sleep issue for people 60 and older. You may have trouble falling asleep or wake up too often or too early. You may not be able to get back to sleep and feel tired in the morning. Many different things can cause insomnia. It’s worth a conversation with your doctor if you’re not sleeping well.
A change to your body’s internal clock may mean you’re up before the sun. Older people tend to fall asleep earlier at night and wake up earlier than they used to. This pattern is called advanced sleep phase syndrome. It might not be a problem, unless you miss out on nighttime fun with friends and family. If you need to reset your body clock, get out in the sunlight from late afternoon until sunset.
We wake up more easily as we get older. Deep sleep, called slow wavesleep, is very important because it is when your body repairs itself and builds energy for the next day.
Your body makes less of Melatonin as you get older. It’s made by a gland in your brain and controls your sleep-wake cycle. It’s released into your blood at night and helps you feel sleepy. Your levels of it stay high throughout the night and drop off by the next morning.
Limit your naps to 20 minutes. You may find yourself dozing off more often as you get older. Naps can perk you up, but keep them short. This is about all you need to feel better. Snoozing longer can make you feel groggy. And don’t nap in the late afternoon or early evening. That can make it harder to get to sleep at night.
Symptoms of sleep apnea, like snoring or pauses in breathing, can wake you up often during the night. (You may not know this is happening, only that you feel tired during the day.) Restless Legs Syndrome, which causes unpleasant tingling in your legs, is worse at night. And about 80% of people with RLS also have periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), which makes your legs jerk every 20 to 40 seconds during sleep.
During REM sleep, your muscles can’t move, so your body is still. But REM behavior disorder turns this off. So you might talk, yell out, or even jump out of bed while you’re asleep. It’s not common, but it happens most often in men over age 50.
Also, researchers think Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia may damage the areas of the brain that control sleep. Some people who have these diseases may doze during the day and stay awake at night. Those who can’t sleep may wander around the house or yell or call out.
As we all know physical activity is important for your health as you get older, but timing is key. Your body temperature rises while you exercise and can take as long as 6 hours to drop. You’ll have an easier time falling asleep if your body is cooler. In other words, late afternoon exercise is probably your best option.
One large French study found that people were 26% less likely to report sleep problems in the first 7 years after retirement than in the 7 before. Men reported better sleep in those years than women. An Australian study found that retirement was linked to good lifestyle changes like exercising and sleeping more.
IMPORTANT—Don’t lie in bed tossing and turning. Go to another room, and do something soothing like reading or listening to music. Go back to bed once you feel drowsy. Don’t turn on the TV or use your computer or cell phone. The light from those devices can make it hard to fall asleep.