It’s a common myth that adults need less sleep as they age, but older adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night just like other adults. Too much (or too little) sleep is associated with a host of health issues from diabetes and heart disease to depression. A lack of sleep in middle age might also increase dementia risk and the risk of death.
Despite the importance of getting enough rest, aging can make sleep elusive. Getting older has been linked to shorter sleep duration, more nighttime wake-ups, and earlier wake times—and the changes start as early as your twenties.
“We used to think sleep changes were an inexorable part of aging that would continue to decline inevitably across the lifespan,” says Michael V. Vitiello PhD, professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Washington. “We’ve learned that the sleep changes we see with age are actually much more complicated than that.”
Vitiello notes that age-related changes in the brain and endocrine systems appear to impact sleep and arousal but other changes to your health, including chronic pain, menopause, medications, and lifestyle changes that are associated with aging, can also take a toll on sleep.
“When we look at older adults [who are in] excellent health, their sleep doesn’t change much during the aging process,” notes Junxin Li, registered nurse and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. “The poor sleep we’ve seen in older adults are largely contributed by chronic conditions and medications used to treat these conditions.”
Regardless of the reason for sleep changes, Vitiello believes, “To a degree [changes to sleep] are part of the aging process [but] growing older does not mean sleeping poorly; there is a lot you can do to improve your sleep in older age.”
Use these strategies for a good night’s sleep.
Rule out sleep disorders
Insomnia, sleep apnea and other sleep disorders are more common in older adults, according to Li. When changing your sleep habits doesn’t help get you get a good night’s rest, make an appointment with your doctor to rule out sleep disorders—and get treatment, if needed.
Soak in the tub
A hot bath (or shower) helps lower your body temperature, which stimulates the production of melatonin and makes it easier to drift into dreamland. Research shows that bathing in water that is 104 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit (40 to 43 degrees Celsius) at least 90 minutes before bed has the biggest impact on sleep quality.
Break a sweat
Whether you walk, run, bike or swim, a 30-minute session of aerobic exercise can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Among older adults, moderate intensity exercise three times per week for at least 12 weeks had the biggest benefits on sleep.
“Physical activity provides multiple health benefits [and] sleep is just one of them,” Li says. “Older adults do need to maintain an active lifestyle to see benefits for sleep.”
Set the scene
A cool, dark environment with minimal noise is best for sleep. Establishing a routine is also important. Vitiello suggests going to bed and waking up around the same time each day to help regulate your circadian rhythm and make sleep a habit.
“It doesn’t have to be the same schedule to the minute but it should be within a half hour window,” he adds. “A variable bedtime with a three-to four-hour window won’t contribute to sleep quality.”
Shut down the screens
Checking email, texting and scrolling social media before bed can disrupt sleep. The blue light from electronic devices has been linked with poor quality sleep, trouble staying asleep and daytime sleepiness. Aim to turn off your phone at least 30 minutes before bed to get a longer, more restful sleep.
“Many older adults think poor sleep is a normal part of aging and don’t mention it when they see their healthcare providers, which can lead to undiagnosed and untreated sleep disturbances,” says Li. “It’s important for older adults to be aware of the importance of sleep health and get professional help for their sleep disturbances.”
Our new weekly Impact Report newsletter will examine how ESG news and trends are shaping the roles and responsibilities of today’s executives—and how they can best navigate those challenges. Subscribe here.