sleep-agingI used to be the only insomniac among my champion sleeper peers. Now several of my friends report experiencing insomnia. I guess that’s not surprising: we’re the baby boom generation, and sleep problems tend to increase with age. Or do they?

Older adults do tend to sleep less than younger adults, with total sleep time declining by about 10 minutes per decade. But the assumption that sleep problems generally increase with age does not always hold true, according to two studies recently published in the journal Sleep.

Study Results

Investigators in the first study analyzed complaints of sleep disturbance and tiredness in over 150,000 Americans age 18 and above. What they found was surprising:

  • The youngest group (18- to 24-year-olds) had the highest rate of reported sleep disturbance, and the oldest group (70- to 74-year-old males, and females age 80 and above) had the lowest rate.
  • The 18- to 24-year-olds and adults age 70 and older reported the highest rates of tiredness, while adults age 65 to 69 reporting the lowest rate of tiredness.
  • Overall, the investigators concluded, “both sleep disturbance and tiredness complaints generally declined across the life span.”

In the second study, researchers took data from over 84,000 people in England and Finland and looked to see how sleep lost over worry changed with age. These findings, too, suggest that sleep quality doesn’t necessarily decline with age:

  • Sleep loss over worry was highest among 34- to 55-year-olds.
  • There was a decline in sleep loss over worry between the ages of 56 and 65 (in women, however, the decline began somewhat later than in men).
  • Sleep loss over worry was the lowest in old age.

Sleep Complaints, Health, and Stress

How can we explain why people in the oldest age groups reported better quality sleep than younger people? One factor that may be involved is overall health. People develop more health problems as they age, and many of these problems have a negative impact on sleep and on mortality. People who survive into the oldest age groups may be particularly resilient to age-related health problems and thus may not experience the associated problems with sleep.

Stress is clearly a factor in the sleep loss over worry reported by the younger groups: people in their 20s and 30s are completing college degrees, entering the job market, and bearing and rearing children. Baby boomers well along in middle age are contending with a few stressors too: we’re developing health problems; losing jobs to a younger, cheaper workforce; caring for sick parents; and even parenting grandchildren. Maybe it’s only the luckiest among us that will slide into old age with a clean bill of health and sound, restorative sleep.

Anyway, when I talk about insomnia these days, I’m not the Lonely Hearts Club Band member I used to be. Now I’ve got plenty of company.

If you’ve got a sleep problem, when did it begin? Was it related to stress or something else?

Age and Sleep Disturbances

Sleep Lost over Worry

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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