February 01, 2010
Older Brains Need Less Sleep?

As we age we sleep less without an increase in sleepiness.

WESTCHESTER, Ill. A study in the Feb. 1 issue of the journal SLEEP suggests that healthy older adults without sleep disorders can expect to have a reduced "sleep need" and to be less sleepy during the day than healthy young adults.

Results show that during a night of eight hours in bed, total sleep time decreased significantly and progressively with age. Older adults slept about 20 minutes less than middle-aged adults, who slept 23 minutes less than young adults. The number of awakenings and the amount of time spent awake after initial sleep onset increased significantly with age, and the amount of time spent in deep, slow-wave sleep decreased across age groups. Yet even with these decreases in sleep time, intensity and continuity, older adults displayed less subjective and objective daytime sleep propensity than younger adults.

Furthermore, two additional nights involving experimental disruption of slow-wave sleep led to a similar response in all age groups. Daytime sleep propensity increased, and slow-wave sleep rebounded during a night of recovery sleep. According to the authors, this suggests that the lack of increased daytime sleepiness in the presence of an age-related deterioration in sleep quality cannot be attributed to unresponsiveness to variations in homeostatic sleep pressure. Instead, healthy aging appears to be associated with reductions in the sleep duration and depth required to maintain daytime alertness.

Does the decline in sleeping come about as a result of a real reduction in the need for sleep? Or does the mechanism that causes us to sleep become more faulty as we age?

Perhaps the brain and the rest of the body are less metabolically active as we age and therefore there's less need for sleep to do repairs and process information gathered during waking hours?

If we made ourselves continue to sleep as much in our later years as we did when we were younger would we derive any benefit?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 February 01 11:32 PM  Aging Brain Studies

Fat Man said at February 2, 2010 6:28 AM:

Is that so?

Bob Badour said at February 2, 2010 6:58 AM:

Define need. Subjective evaluations of alertness don't really establish need.

Older adults have difficulty healing--a process that normally progresses mostly during deep restorative sleep. Older adults have more memory problems and memories are solidified during REM sleep.

fb0252 said at February 2, 2010 11:50 AM:

nah. they keep coming up with eroneous stuff about sleep for lack of understanding of the causes of insomnia. insomnia is caused by mild distress. while subject to such distress counting sheep to 10 is difficult to impossible. remove the distress and you can count sheep to 10 easily. olders wake up and sleep less due to this distress. Youngsters also, but when do we read about insomnia in the young. the "mild distress" is caused by fecal matter in the instestine. take a laxative, empty out, and you'll sleep like a baby, and alternative to a laxative plan your bathroom habits before going to bed. empty out completely and sleep. you have just read the "cause and cure" of insomnia.

Mercer said at February 2, 2010 2:43 PM:

"Define need. Subjective evaluations of alertness don't really establish need."

From the link:

"Objective daytime sleepiness measured by the MSLT decreased with age. When asked to lie in a comfortable position on the bed and try to fall asleep, young adults fell asleep in an average of 8.7 minutes, compared with 11.7 minutes for middle-aged adults and 14.2 minutes for older adults."

Bob Badour said at February 2, 2010 3:09 PM:


I am not sure that really measures sleepiness. It depends on your definition, I suppose. MSLT measures how long it takes to fall asleep or the ease with which one falls asleep. One can be very sleep deprived in the sense of disorientation, confusion, memory lapses, slow healing etc. and not fall to sleep easily, which seems to happen as we age.

Did they also measure the duration of the sleep? For example, who is sleepier, a young person who falls asleep after 8 minutes and wakes again after 15 minutes or an older adult who takes 30 minutes to fall asleep and remains out for 45 minutes?

Then again, I have no problems with the conclusion that doctors should diagnose sleep disturbances when older people report daytime drowsiness.

Banjo said at February 2, 2010 4:43 PM:

I am 70 years old and take a Tamazam every night, sleeping soundly for seven hours. Been doing this for years. I had hernia surgery last week and felt I shouldn't mix it with the pain medication. Apart from short spells of sleeping, I was awake all night. Here's the question. Why should I person forgo the advantages of a full night's sleep for fear of becoming addicted to sleeping pills when they are easily available? I am aware that the collapse of civilization would put me up that creek sans paddle for a couple of weeks, but I think the risk is worth the gamble. Where is the flaw in my reasoning?

Lloyd said at February 2, 2010 5:01 PM:

Right now, and for the last two years, my number one problem with sleep has been the apnea mask I was prescribed to use. I can no longer breathe at night without it and I can't sleep naturally with it.

I can otherwise subjectively confirm that I am sleeping less and needing it less as I age. There simply remains a minimum amount I require. If I get that minumum, then I am OK regardless of the day's events. It's interesting that I can even ignore the sleeping pill I swallowed if I am not 'sleepy.' I can lie awake for hours even under that influence. My mistake was not knowing that this lessening of my sleep need was normal for me and instead consulting a physician. Your results may vary.

I can also subjectively confirm that those who use sleep deprivation as a way of torturing and even executing people are onto something. I'll risk the sleeping pill addiction in favor of getting that minimum requirement.

Steve Smith said at February 2, 2010 5:21 PM:

I'm 66 years old and I love sleeping - always have. I'm tired when I go to bed, fall asleep quickly and sleep for at least 8 hours. I also like dreaming when asleep. Then I get up and attack the day. Same thing happens when camping in my tent - lay down on the ground and go to sleep. Must be because I'm an immigrant and I like tea and bacon sandwiches.

Jim said at February 2, 2010 5:22 PM:

I am 72 years old. My sleep problem is largley caused by nocturia. I had BPH surgery which was supposed to correct the problem, but did no good whatsoever. My usual sleep pattern is in bed by 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. fall almost instantly asleep, get up after one hour to go to the bathroom, then back to bed and fall almost instantly asleep, get up after an hour to go to the bathroom, go back to bed and fall almost instantly asleep and sleep for perhaps an hour and a half. Quite often then I am not able to go back to sleep so I get up read, work on the computer, watch a movie, etc. for about 2-3 hours until I get sleepy again and then usually sleep about three hours without having to go to the bathroom. All told I might average about 6-6 1/2 hours of sleep if I am lucky. I really feel that I need four to four and a half hours to function OK the next day. Sometimes I will take a 10-15 nap during the day if I feel tired.
About every three weeks I really tie one on and sleep about 8-9 hours for a night (about the same pattern of one to one and a half hour segments as described above) or two before going back into the shorter sleep pattern.
When the nocturia and insomnia started I did get frustrated, but have come to accept it. I figure the body will always win so if I need more sleep I will get it. If I can't find sleep I don't really worry about it. In my thinking sleeping pills aren't the answer. Partially because I wouldn't want an accident in bed and also because the body and brain will figure out a way to get rest if they really need to.

Norm said at February 2, 2010 8:58 PM:

Jim, My habits closely parallel yours. One question: What kind of "accidents" can sleeping pills cause in bed? I've never heard of such a side effect. I've heard of becoming addicted, though.

greg g said at February 3, 2010 2:11 AM:

I am 54 years old and need less sleep now than I did at twenty, thirty or forty. My reasoning skills, intuitive logic and coordination have not deteriorated significantly although I will say that my eyesight has diminished and my hearing has become selective, my wife would say that I am just ignoring her! How much sleep do I need? Well put it this way, when I was twenty I could sleep for twelve hours, today I sleep for three and wake up. I find that I sleep in spurts. I may sleep two hours or three hours or five hours but rarely do I sleep for an eight hour stretch and most days I sleep five or six hours, and on rare occasions seven.

Frank Morris said at February 4, 2010 7:31 PM:

I am a 63 yo retired physician. I agree about learning new causes of insomnia. For years I had frequent awakenings, three bathroom trips per night, tired all the time. Urology diagnosed BPH. Sleep study was almost normal, minimal sleep apnea, but the tech said I would start to snore and wake myself up. Went on CPAP a year ago. Now sleeping same length of time as when I was in my 20's. No awakenings, no nocturia. Now off all meds (hypertension, reflux) and feeling better than in many years. Moral: think about your problems and don't just accept them as a normal part of aging.

Anon said at February 5, 2010 9:35 PM:

62 Y/O - fighting sleep problems. Have apnea and use CPAP, but even so cannot sleep at all without sedative (in this case, Seroquel). Quality of sleep inadequate after 8 hours, sometimes okay after 10 in bed (not all sleeping). Work is highly technical and requires memory and concentration, so this sleep issue is really a problem, and am actively looking for alternatives to Seroquel, or for better understanding of issue.

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