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Older Adults Typically Sleep Less, But Too Little Can Be Harmful


Even though people sleep less as they age, it doesn’t mean they need less sleep. A geriatrics specialist talks about factors that can impair sleep for seniors and steps they can take to get some needed rest.

Dr. Raja Paspula is senior lead physician with Parkland Hospital’s Geriatrics and Senior Care Center.

Interview Highlights:

How we sleep less as we age: “The newborns kind of sleep 16 to 20 hours. Ages 1 to 4, down to 11 to 12 hours. And afterwards, there’s a gradual decline in sleep. When we become older, it is less. The National Sleep Foundation says people between 18 and 64 years old need to sleep seven to nine hours. After 65 years, seven to eight hours, and some people sleep less than that.”

Why elderly people tend to sleep less: “That’s how the body is made. And after that, as we become older, there are some other issues. There are diseases which kind of tend to cause this problem. For example, medical conditions like lung diseases, heart failure, high blood pressure and diabetes can cause less sleep. Obviously, cancer, arthritis, chronic pain. And also, psychiatric conditions like depression, dementia, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder. Substance abuse like alcoholism – all have an effect on less sleep."

Another reason: "Apart from these problems, the deep restorative sleep tends to be less in seniors as opposed to people who are much younger. We don’t know the scientific reason. There are different theories. But overall, seniors tend to sleep less than people who are young."

But it’s not a red flag: “An older individual who sleeps less, they may go to bed early and rise up early — that’s not a problem. That’s the kind of pattern that develops. Older adults, though they sleep less, they get up once at night and fall back again quickly to sleep — that’s not a red flag. The problem is if they are having frequent interruptions that will impair the rest of the day. They become more fatigued. They feel tired. They have poor concentration. And that will impair their memory.”

Ways to help get more rest:

  • Naps: “They can take naps — 20 minutes to a half hour in the afternoon, early hours as opposed to late in the evening because that will impact their sleep.”
  • Exercise: “Exercise during the daytime is important, but not before going to bed. Experts say try to finish at least three to four hours before you go to bed.”
  • Sleep hygiene: “Avoid things like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and certain chemicals that can impair sleep. Turning the bedroom into a sleep-inducing environment. Keeping the temperature ideal, anywhere between 60 and 75 degrees, whatever makes them comfortable. Establishing a sleep routine: doing things that are comfortable like taking a bath, like reading a book, something more relaxing than doing some stressful things. Going to bed truly when they are tired. Don’t expect the sleep to come. If you don’t get sleep in 20 minutes, get up and do something more relaxing and go back when you’re tired.”

For more information:

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.