Sleep Disorders

01 March 2012

Sleep gets better with age, not worse

Ageing does not appear to be a factor in poor sleep, a new survey of more than 150,000 Americans shows.


Ageing does not appear to be a factor in poor sleep, a new survey of more than 150 000 Americans shows. 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. "These results force us to re-think what we know about sleep in older people, men and women."

The study, appearing in the journal Sleep, examined rates of sleep disturbance and daytime fatigue reported by 155 877 adults participating in a randomised 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. All responses were weighted so that they matched US Census data.

Health problems tied to poor sleep

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.

"Even if sleep among older Americans is actually worse than in younger adults, feelings about it still improve with age," said Grandner, Research Associate at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the Perlman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. "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."

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 practise of ignoring sleep complaints from older adults as a normal part of ageing.

(EurekAlert, February 2012) 

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Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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