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Understanding Sleep and Age

Jake Comfort  |  Updated: May 25, 2020

Understanding Sleep and Age

A lot of things change as you get older. Your body and mind have different needs at different points in your life. One thing that many people don’t consider when they think about the differences in different ages is sleep. This guide will help you understand how a person’s sleep needs change depending on how old they are. Use this information in this guide to get a better understanding of your own needs as well as those you care about.

Does Sleep Change as You Get Older?

The amount of sleep you need changes as you get older. The older you get, the more the duration of your sleep as well as your sleep quality tend to decline. This trend continues until you hit the age of about 90. That means most of your life will have evolving sleep quality and needs. Understanding these needs is essential to making sure your body gets the rest you require.

The reason that your sleep quality and duration change is that the physical and mental developments that take place in a human body also change over time. Therefore, it makes sense that as your brain and body change, your relationship to sleep will change as well.

In order to understand how these changes affect you, you need to understand sleep stage variations and how they change as you get older.

Sleep Stage Variations and Age

There are four stages of sleep. Each one has a different role to play in how your body and brain respond to the rest you’re getting. As you get older your sleep-wake cycle, which regulates individual bed times and wake times, also changes. There are many factors that go into these changes, including changes in the brain and body, but also changes in things like diet, alcohol consumption, and personal motivation to go to sleep.

The four main stages of sleep can be broken down into N1, N2, N3, and REM sleep. N1, N2, and N3 sleep is characterized by slower breathing and heart rate, as well as a drop in blood pressure. People are fairly still during these stages of sleep. When the body goes into REM sleep the brain is in a state that’s much closer to being awake. Your eyes move rapidly and brain waves are similar to those in a waking brain.

As you get older sleep becomes less restorative. There are lots of different theories on why that’s the case. One of the most popular theories has to do with the body’s release of melatonin. No matter the actual reason, one of the most common features of sleep changes as you age is less time spent in deep N3 sleep. There are other changes that take place as well. These include:

  • Experiencing less deep sleep
  • Taking longer to fall asleep
  • Less restful sleep
  • Falling asleep early in the evening and waking up early in the morning
  • Frequent bathroom trips
  • Waking up during the night

As you can see, there are many changes that happen over the course of your life when it comes to sleep. Everyone experiences these changes differently. Moreover, every possible change doesn’t affect every single person. That means the way your body and brain adapt to understanding sleep will change based on your personal physiology and condition.

As a result of these changes, personal motivation, and individual genetics, the amount of sleep that each person needs varies from individual to individual. However, there are some general guidelines you can follow to get a better idea of how much sleep you need at different points in your life.

Understanding Sleep and Age

General Sleep Guidelines Based on Age

This section contains general sleep guidelines based on age. These recommendations represent the average person. Different people may have different sleep requirements based on other factors. Generally, these sleep guidelines are more accurate the younger a person is and have more variability the older a person gets. The basic recommendations are:

  • Newborns (0-3 months old): 14-17 hours
  • Infants (4-11 months old): 12-15 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years old): 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years old): 10-13 hours
  • School-age children (6-13 years old): 9-11 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17 years old): 8-10 hours
  • Young Adults (18-25 years old): 7-9 hours
  • Adults (26-64 years old): 7-9 hours
  • Older Adults (65+ years old): 7-8 hours

This list gives the basic general sleep requirements based on age. We’ll go through each different age category and give some more information about the amount of sleep needed at that age, how sleep works at that age, and why people that age need that amount of sleep.

Newborns

Newborns will spend most of the day asleep. However, this sleep will be scattered and unpredictable until the body establishes a regular circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is the process in your body that regulates when you wake up and when you fall asleep. Newborns need the most sleep because their brains and bodies have the highest rate of development.

Infants

Once a baby reaches the age of about 3-4 months they’ll usually start developing a more consistent sleep pattern. This means they’ll sleep for longer periods and take fewer naps than newborns. However, it’s important to understand that infants will still take numerous naps throughout the day. Sleep patterns start to be established during this phase, so it’s important that infants get the sleep they need when they need it so they can start developing healthy sleep habits.

Toddlers

One of the biggest defining characteristics about how sleep changes for toddlers is that their sleep is even more consolidated. As a result, they’re more likely to sleep through the night and will take fewer naps during the day. Additionally, toddlers are more likely to have bedtime resistance, can wake up at night with difficulty falling back asleep, and can experience nightmares. These reasons are the primary factors that cause sleep experts to recommend a consistent sleep schedule for toddlers. A consistent schedule will help the child develop good sleep habits and prevent sleep problems later in life.

Preschoolers

Preschoolers require between 10 and 13 hours of sleep. This age will see naps continue to decline. However, the risk of sleep problems also goes up. Children are more likely to resist bedtime and ask to stay up to continue a fun activity. They are also more likely to ask to sleep with parents and wake up at night. This is also the age where children start to experience nighttime fears, sleep terrors, and start sleep walking. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule that accounts for all the sleep students this age require is essential to helping develop good sleep habits and preventing sleep difficulties that can manifest later on in life.

School-Aged Children

Many children stop taking naps by the age of 6 or 7. As a result, sleep is more likely to come in the form of a consolidated block at night. One interesting thing about sleep at this age is that individuals spend more time in slow-wave sleep – the N1, N2, and N3 parts of the sleep schedule. Children get more deep and restorative rest, so they are more alert and energetic during the daytime.

Teens

The teenage years are essential when it comes to developing good sleep habits and patterns. That’s because their circadian rhythm shifts during this period of time. It can be difficult to get the sleep that teens need because school frequently starts before their preferred wake up time. As a result, many students don’t get the rest they need. This can result in circadian rhythm disorders that can upset sleep schedules and habits and can cause problems later in life if good sleep habits aren’t re-enforced.

Young Adults

One of the biggest changes to sleep as people enter their twenties is that they spend more time in the slow-wave sleep stages of N1, N2, and N3. They also spend less time in deep restorative sleep phases. This helps explain why young adults don’t feel as rested when they wake up. It also explains why young adults are more likely to experience daytime sleepiness and have problems maintaining healthy sleep habits and a proper sleep schedule.

    Understanding Sleep and Age

    Adults

    Generally speaking, adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. However, there is more variability in this range than other age categories experience. This comes down to genetics and what scientists call chronotypes – the way your body and brain experience time. Additionally, lifestyle factors such as exercise, alcohol and caffeine consumption, work, and school can make it hard to get consistent and regular sleep. Adults are more likely to need the help of sleep specialists and other medical professionals that can help people establish or re-establish healthy sleep patterns and cycles.

    Older Adults

    Older adults are the group that’s most likely to experience problems with sleeping. These issues can include less restorative sleep, difficulty falling asleep, and waking up frequently throughout the night. There are several factors that can contribute to sleep problems for older adults. These include:

    • Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome (ASPS) – This condition affects a significant number of elderly persons. It is a circadian rhythm disorder which causes earlier than typical bed and wake times. This can result in awkward sleep schedules, such as sleeping from 6pm to 3am.
    • Medical Conditions – Our bodies are more likely to develop medical issues as we age. Some of the most common medical disorders include heart and lung issues. Older individuals are also more likely to develop urinary issues which cause multiple bathroom trips as well as painful conditions like arthritis. Side effects from different medications can also disrupt sleep and sleep schedules.
    • Decreased Melatonin Production – Melatonin is a natural sleep promoting hormone produced in a special gland in the brain, called the pineal gland. Studies show that night-time levels of melatonin in older adults can be as much as a quarter or less of the levels found in younger people. That makes it harder to get to sleep and stay asleep at night.

    As you can see, the amount of sleep your body needs as you age changes. These changes come in response to different physiological and mental changes that take place as the body ages. Understanding these changes is a good way of understanding what kind of sleep requirements you have at your age. Establishing good sleep schedules and habits in younger ages is important to ensuring proper sleep habits in adults. It also means that people are less likely to experience sleep problems and disruptions.

    Understanding what kind of sleep and how much sleep you need is important to living your best life. Sleep restores energy and helps your body recover from your daily tasks. It is also essential to your mental health. Use the information in this guide to get a better understanding of how much sleep you need to be as healthy and possible.

    References

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    Patel A and Araujo J. Physiology, Sleep Stages. StatPearls, Jan 2019

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    Hagenauer M.H Perryman J.I., et al. Adolescent Changes in the Homeostatic and Circadian Regulation of Sleep. Developmental Neuropsychology, June 2009

    Rodriguez J, Dzierzewski J, et al. Sleep Problems in the Elderly. Medical Clinics of North America, Dec 2014

    Van Cauter E,  Leproult R, et al. Age-Related Changes in Slow Wave Sleep and REM Sleep and Relationship With Growth Hormone and Cortisol Levels in Healthy Men. Clinical Investigation, Aug 2000

    Hirshkowitz M, Whiton K, et al. National Sleep Foundation’s updated sleep duration recommendations: final report. Sleep Health, Dec 2015

    Takahashi Y, Kipnis DM, et al. Growth hormone secretion during sleep. Journal of Clinical Investigation, Sept 1968

    Waterhouse J, Fukuda Y, et al. Daily rhythms of the sleep-wake cycle. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, Mar 2012

    Mander B, Winer J, et al. Sleep and Human Aging. Neuron, Feb 2018

    Gursoy AY, Kiseli M, et al. Melatonin in Aging Women. Climacteric, Sept 2015

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