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So, it’s 4am and you are staring at the ceiling knowing you are going to be awake for at least another hour. When you were a child you couldn’t ever wake up for school and had to be roused. What on earth has happened? Well of course life has interrupted us rudely! We have children, forged a career, worry about bills, get hot flushes/flashes…….no wonder we don’t sleep like a child.
Many believe that fewer hours asleep is the price we pay for getting older and in part it is however, that doesn’t mean we can’t get a good few hours of refreshing sleep.

How many hours do we need? Well 7 to 9 is probably optimum but in reality it is the amount of hours you need to wake up feeling alert and fresh without the aid of an alarm clock. In reality given the fast pace of life that probably doesn’t happen too often.

Many of us are snatching just a few interrupted hours a night and despite what you may have read, we can’t train ourselves to need less sleep. The body quite simply doesn’t work like that. We do not function fully on less sleep!

Research is being done to see if once we enter our 65th year and over we need less sleep or more. There are no clear results yet but polls have shown that many people over 65 report that they want more sleep. Michael Vitiello (1) suggests from his research that there is probably only a small reduction in time needed as sleep time across our entire lifespan. Provided you remain healthy your sleep requirements probably won’t change that much as you age.

How do we know if we get enough sleep?

·         Do you need a coffee or a red bull to get yourself going?

·         Is your short-term memory misbehaving?

·         Do you struggle to focus on a job or task and become less productive once you have been sat down a while?

·         Do you get fed up, suffer with tension or snappy when you haven’t slept well?

Answering yes to any of the above?  Then you are probably sleep deprived.

What is it that dictates our need for sleep?

It is not just about age there are many other variables: -

·         Genetics,

·         Circadian rhythm,

·         Sleep quality,

·         Lack of sleep over a recent time, and

·         Gender


There isn’t yet sufficient data to prove whether insomnia runs through families but I do know that my son and daughter can struggle to sleep like I do. In a 2003 article (2) it was stated that sleep disorder medication would probably work despite any potential genetic flaws.

Circadian Rhythm (biological clock)

This is what determines whether we are “early birds” or “night owls”. I am a night owl and my Father was an early bird. He would drive me crazy in the mornings with his extreme jollity and whistling! The circadian rhythm process controls this as well when we naturally wake up or fall asleep.
When your teenager wants to lay in and stay up late they can’t help it. That is how their circadian rhythm works. (Looks like mine forgot to grow up!). We are at our drowsiest between midnight and 7 in the morning and at 1-4pm during the day. This is why siestas are so popular! During the ageing process our circadian rhythm changes so that we get tired earlier and want to wake up earlier.

Quality of our sleep

As a child and teenager bodies need a lot of fuel to grow and thrive. Because of this they tend to get much more deep sleep than adults. In fact they spend at least 50% of their sleeping time in this mode. Once they hit their twenties this has halved and by the age of 40 many people can’t get into restorative sleep. The older you get the less likely you are to have long periods of deep sleep and thus you will find you can be awakened far more easily.

Arand (2) says that older people frequently complain about their sleep quality. They wake during the night and spend time awake before they can get back to sleep plus they then wake up early groggy and tired. The issue here is of course that they can’t get that wonderful 7 to 8 hours sleep that is needed.

Lack of sleep recently

This is a vicious cycle. When we have a bout of insomnia we need more sleep but of course we then can’t get enough to catch up. A Sleep Foundation (3) in the USA found that 44% of older people had at least one symptom of insomnia at least twice a week.


It will come as no surprise that women experience more sleep changes than men. This is down to hormones. During the first trimester of pregnancy exhaustion reigns and lots more sleep is needed. A lack of comfort, heartburn etc. with a bump makes sleep more difficult too. Once women have their infant at home it is claimed they wake more frequently as they are listening out for their prodigy.

As women age and enter the menopause and hormone levels drop sleep can become very challenging. Hot flushes and night sweats are severe disruptors.

 Arand (2) has found that women are much more likely to report insomnia than men but she is not sure if it is a social issue or that women are far more willing to say something.

Sleep changes aren’t a part of getting older but they are more likely to occur then. Vitiello (1) states in research that the key to good sleep as we age is to stay healthy. Most “seniors” who report insomnia do so because of illness or medication.

·         Arthritis, lung disease, heart disease, enlarged prostate, depression and acid reflux affect older people and 20% of this age group exhibit at least 4 of these conditions.

·         Sleep disorders like restless legs, sleep apnoea or insomnia affect older people more.

·         Asthma and high blood pressure meds are notorious for interrupting sleep.

·         Changes in lifestyle whether it be retiring, moving home or losing loved one can have a profound effect on sleep as can using recreational drugs, drinking alcohol and taking naps.

·         Sleep environment – too much noise, heat or lighting in the boudoir will not help anyone. Nor will an uncomfortable bed.

If you are in good health as an older person you can expect to sleep well though it may take a bit longer to fall asleep.

So, it seems that the same message recurs – we can help ourselves.  If you are struggling I have found THIS LINK that has a directory of sleep therapists where you can find treatment if you think you need it.

I hope I have given you a greater understanding of how our sleep patterns can change during our life. I do believe that knowledge is power and can help us set manageable sleep goals.

Part 3 of the mini-series is all about top tips to beat insomnia!

Keep your eye out on the blog or at

Have a refreshing night’s sleep tonight!


Janie S xxx


1.        Vitiello M, “Recent Advances in Treating Insomnia in Older Adults”, Grand Rounds, May 1 2009. Michael V. Vitiello PhD

2.        Bonnet H, Arand DL, Sleep medicine Reviews. August 2003. Vol 7. pp297—310

3.        National Sleep Foundation website, “Can’t Sleep? What to know about insomnia.”


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