Sleep quality drops with age, but effects diminish

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Men and women in their 80s and 90s sleep less and have poorer quality sleep than young individuals, but they are also less likely to report feeling unrested or overly sleepy the next day, investigators report in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

“This study is novel in part due to the sheer size and scope of the study compared to earlier works,” first author Dr. Mark L. Unruh noted in correspondence with Reuters Health. By studying older individuals still living in the community, the results may be generalized to the majority of older adults.

Unruh’s group designed the study to determine whether “sleep problems in older adults should be addressed by treating underlying conditions rather than viewed as simply a consequence of aging.” The study included 5,407 subjects who completed a sleep questionnaire and underwent a home sleep study.

According to Unruh, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and co-investigators, the sleep test, or “polysomnography,” showed that the total average nightly sleep time declined from 386 minutes among women in their 40s to 341 minutes among those 80 years of age or older. In men, the corresponding sleep times declined from 361 minutes to 326 minutes.

Older individuals had more nighttime awakenings, the report indicates.

The results also showed significant differences between men and women. In men, older age was linked to less deep sleep.

By contrast, there was little association between older age and sleep stage in women, but elderly women were more likely to have trouble falling asleep.

The investigators note that while older age was associated more strongly with poor sleep - according to the test results -- in men than in women, women were more likely to report having poor sleep.

“If older adults have sleep complaints, (doctors) should take them seriously, since older age wasn’t strongly associated with complaints of worse sleep,” Unruh said.

He and his colleagues point out that several treatments have been found to improve sleep in older adults, such as behavioral therapy, biofeedback, management of stress and grief, and use of benzodiazepines (such as Xanax) and melatonin.

Any sleep disorders identified should also be directly addressed, Unruh added.

“The University of Pittsburgh has an age-wise sleep program that is looking at the contribution of sleep to healthy aging, as well as the contribution of chronic health conditions to sleep in older adults,” he noted. “We are also investigating conditions such as sleep apnea that may be strongly related to medical illness.”