Good news for seniors. Contrary to common wisdom, sleep doesn’t get more difficult with age. In fact, according to a new study, sleep quality tends to improve the older we get, with adults in their 80s getting better sleep than any other age group surveyed.
More than a person’s biological age, the study suggests, it’s factors like stress and underlying depression or illness that tend to affect quality of rest. When such influences are taken out of the equation, elderly adults aren’t any more likely to report sleep problems than younger adults in their 20s and 30s.
The results were a surprise to the researchers, who initially undertook the study to show that sleep problems are associated with aging. “This flies in the face of popular belief,” said lead author, Michael Grandner, a research associate at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, in a statement. “These results force us to rethink what we know about sleep in older people — men and women.”
For the study, researchers analyzed data from 155,877 adults who took part in a 2006 phone survey about sleep quality by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To gauge rates of sleep disturbance and daytime tiredness, researchers asked questions such as “Over the last two weeks, how many days have you had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep or sleeping too much?” and “Over the last two weeks, how many days have you felt tired or had little energy?”
The participants were also asked about race, income, education, depressed mood, general health and time of last medical check up.
On average, elderly adults reported sleeping better than younger adults. When they did complain about sleep issues, it was usually a sign of other health problems at play. “Once you factor out things like illness and depression, older people should be reporting better sleep. If they’re not, they need to talk to their doctor. They shouldn’t just ignore it,” Grandner said in a statement.
In general, health problems and depression were associated with worse sleep across age groups, and women reported more sleep issues than men.
The survey found that sleep quality consistently improved with age, except for a brief spike in complaints among middle-aged adults between 40 to 59 years old. Among women in this age group, Grander ascribed sleep difficulties to menopause as well as the stress of work and raising children. For men, workplace stress and increases in rates of heart disease and high blood pressure could be the culprits, he said. After this mid-life spike, sleep complaints continue to decrease.
Does this mean sleep actually gets better with age? Well, not necessarily. It’s possible that sleep disturbances just don’t bother old people as much as they do younger folks. “Even if sleep is actually worse in the elderly than young people, their perceptions of it might be different,” says Grandner. “As you get older, you may have other things going on, other health problems, and you may not consider a little sleep disruption to be something that really bothers you.”
The new study was published in the journal Sleep.