The idea that sleep isn't as important to good health for older people as it is for younger people is a common misconception. Recent studies have shown sleep is particularly important to help prevent obesity and a decline in mental acuity late in life. Yet just 32% of Americans aged 50 and older say they get a "good night's sleep" every night, according to a new study Gallup conducted for the International Longevity Center-USA*. Americans in this age group report getting a good night's sleep an average of 4.8 nights a week.
Is Lack of Sleep a "Problem"?
A majority of older adults (56%) report typically getting an average of between six and eight hours of sleep each night. A combined 22% tell Gallup they log in even more hours than that, while 21% say they get fewer than six hours sleep on average per night. The specific amount of sleep a person needs varies by the individual, making it difficult to generalize exactly when more or fewer hours of sleep constitutes a "problem." Everyone knows someone who brags about needing only 4 to 5 hours sleep each night, while someone else will feel that 10 hours is necessary to function during the day.
"I would never define a sleep problem by the number of hours a person gets each night," explains Dr. Harrison Bloom, senior associate at ILC. "The real issue with sleep is how often daytime sleepiness is a problem. The occasional yawn doesn't mean much, but the inability to function -- and function well -- during the day defines a sleep problem." So even though two-thirds of Americans aged 50 and older are getting fewer than seven nights of good, solid sleep each week, just one in four (25%) in this age group say they have a "sleep problem."
For a nearly a third of Americans aged 50 and older, health problems -- from arthritis to heart disease -- are interfering with their sleep. Another 4 in 10 say worry has kept them from falling asleep over the past month, and 26% say it has interfered with their ability to stay asleep.
Various behavior patterns keep adults from restful slumber, too. The most common disruptor for adults 50 and older is getting up to use the bathroom. Forty-three percent of respondents say they have done that "often" in the past month, and another 33% say this happens "sometimes."
The survey finds the second-most common sleep behavior pattern that can hinder the quest for a good night's sleep is falling asleep while watching television. Twenty-two percent of respondents say they do this often, and 29% say it happens sometimes. "I consider television one of the medications that interfere with sleep," says Bloom. "It's in the same category as caffeine and other medications that keep people from getting their proper rest at night. Many people say they need TV in their bedrooms to fall asleep, but often they get into a nightly pattern of watching TV, dozing, watching TV, dozing."
To All a Good Night
The National Institute on Aging offers the following suggestions for older adults who may have problems sleeping:
- Go to sleep and wake up at the same time, even on weekends.
- Try not to nap too much during the day.
- Try to get some natural light in the afternoon each day.
- Try to exercise at regular times each day.
- Don't drink alcohol or smoke to help you sleep.
- Create a safe and comfortable place to sleep -- a room that is dark, well-ventilated, and quiet.
- Develop a regular bedtime routine.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 national adults, aged 50 and older, conducted for the International Longevity Center Aug. 15 through Sept. 18, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.