Get older, sleep better

Subjective sleep quality seems to improve over a lifetime, with the fewest complaints coming from people in their 80s

Poor sleep is one of the many things that old age is blamed for. And many of us expect to suffer from loss of sleep as we reach our senior years. But a survey of 150,000 adults by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, has thrown up results to the contrary. It has found that ageing does not appear to be a factor in poor sleep. And, in fact, subjective sleep quality seems to improve over a lifetime, with the fewest complaints coming from people in their 80s.

"This flies in the face of popular belief," said Michael Grandner, PhD, lead author of the study and research associate at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the Perlman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. "These results force us to re-think what we know about sleep in older people—men and women."

The study, appearing in the March edition of the journal Sleep, examined rates of sleep disturbance and daytime fatigue reported by 155,877 adults participating in a randomized telephone survey. Respondents were asked about sleep disturbances and daytime tiredness. The survey also asked about race, income, education, depressed mood, general health and time of last medical checkup.

Health problems and depression were associated with poor sleep, and women reported more sleep disturbances and tiredness than men. But except for an uptick in sleep problems during middle age—more pronounced in women than men—sleep quality improved consistently over a lifetime. Or at least that's how people reported their sleep.

According to Grandner, even if sleep in older people is actually worse than in younger people, feelings about it still improve with age.  "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," says Grandner.

Grandner said the study's original intent was to confirm that increased sleep problems are associated with ageing, using the largest and most representative sample ever to address this issue. Instead, the results challenge the conventional wisdom that difficulty sleeping is perceived more by older adults, and challenge the general clinical practice of ignoring sleep complaints from older adults as a normal part of aging.

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