Richard Flohil has never liked to sleep. “I have found, as I age, I sleep less and less and, frankly, that’s fine with me,” says the 83-year-old Torontonian. He doesn’t like to linger in bed. “I think about all the other things I could be doing.” A “retired” music publicist, he goes out most nights to check out jazz and blues bands, and still represents a handful of musicians. Flohil usually goes to bed after midnight, and sleeps five to six hours a night.
That’s well shy of Health Canada’s recommended seven to eight hours. While most of his peers don’t keep such late hours, Flohil’s tenuous relationship with sleep is quite normal. Research shows that people in their seventies sleep an hour less, on average, than those in their twenties, and one-third of Canadian seniors don’t meet the minimum recommended amount.
Meanwhile, their sleep quality is worse. The amount of deep sleep – the truly restful part of the night that helps us with our memories and immune systems – can start to decrease as early as our thirties.
The amount of deep sleep – the truly restful part of the night that helps us with our memories and immune systems – can start to decrease as early as our thirties.
Harvard researchers recently discovered a reason for this sleep shift: neurons that regulate sleep in the brain that slowly die off as we age. But is this really such a problem? Whether seniors just need less sleep, or whether they need more sleep but just can’t get it, “That’s been debated for decades,” says Judith Davidson, a clinical psychologist and sleep researcher at Queen’s University.
On the “less sleep is bad” camp, studies show that seniors who report poor quality and shorter sleep do worse on cognitive tests. On the “seniors can get by on less” side, studies show that seniors are less affected by sleep deprivation compared to younger adults – they report feeling less sleepy and don’t have the same concentration deficits.
Should seniors worry about their shorter sleeps? Only if they’re feeling tired during the day or are bothered by insomnia in the middle of the night, says Davidson. “The person will know whether they have a sleep problem or not,” she explains.
While we can’t control neuron changes (at least not yet), we can problem-solve some sleep issues. “There are lots of reasons sleep can get broken up and worsen as we age, and it doesn’t necessarily all have to do with natural aging processes in the brain,” says Davidson.
Seniors may have chronic medical conditions and may be taking medications, both of which can negatively affect sleep. Better managing health conditions and talking to your doctor about whether your medication has sleep side effects are good paths to dreamland.
Many older adults find they get sleepy earlier and want to wake up earlier. For those frustrated by this pattern, Davidson recommends exposing yourself to sunlight in the afternoon to push the body clock ahead. Getting sunlight during the day, in general, triggers a healthy cycle of sleep hormones, as do going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, Davidson adds. Exercise also helps improve the deep-to-light sleep ratio.
And, if Flohil’s energy levels are any indication, maybe music and time spent with friends help, too.