Unveiling the Mystery: Why Do Older People Sleep a Lot? 

Sleep is one of the most important elements of a senior’s life, but it isn’t always easy for them to come by in their lives. For example, the Sleep Foundation states that up to 30% of all senior adults have insomnia, which is alarming. But you may know a senior who seems to sleep most of the day, and you’ve asked yourself, “Why do older people sleep a lot?”

That confusion is also fueled by a lot of misconceptions and myths, such as the idea that seniors need less sleep than most people. As a result, it’s important to sort through these conflicting ideas, understand how much sleep seniors need, and even answer questions like “Why do older people sleep less?” The answers may surprise and concern you.

Aging and Sleep Patterns

So, do older people need more sleep than younger people? Not according to our research. Then why does a 90-year-old mother or grandmother seem to sleep so much throughout the day? Simply put, her sleep patterns have changed, and she’s likely experiencing insomnia, a serious issue that affects far too many otherwise healthy senior citizens.

How Your Sleep Patterns Change As You Age

In a study by the Sleep Foundation, it was revealed that sleep patterns change in multiple ways as we age, including:

  • Shifting Schedules: Your body’s circadian rhythms shift forward in time as you age, meaning that you get tired earlier in the afternoon and wake up earlier in the morning, even without wanting to get up that early.
  • Struggles Adapting to Changes: Has a senior in your life struggled to adapt to daylight savings time, jet lag, or other changes in sleep? That’s a part of aging: and it can make it harder for seniors to get a good and consistent night’s sleep.
  • Waking Up at Night: Senior adults experience changes in sleep architecture that cause them to cycle more quickly through the various sleep stages. We’ll talk more about this in a later section, so please read on to learn more.

Sleep Requirements In Younger People vs. Older Adults

As we age, we naturally need a little less sleep: that’s just a part of aging. For example, a newborn baby will sleep between 14-17 hours per day, while a 6-12-year-old needs 9-12 hours of sleep. By the time we hit 18 up to 60 years, though, we are down to seven or more hours per night, while people over 65 need 7-8 hours of sleep every 24 hours to stay healthy.

Now, you probably know a senior who sleeps far less than seven hours a day and who seems just fine. That’s simply not the case: they’ve simply adapted to operating with less sleep and do what they can to live a happy life without sleep. People are amazing at adjusting their behaviors to situations like these but, ultimately, are only hurting themselves by not taking their sleep seriously enough.

The Myth Addressed: Do Old People Really Need Less Than Seven Hours of Sleep?

You’ve probably heard people mention this idea at least once: older people just need less sleep than younger adults. Even the list of sleep requirements showcases that seniors typically need 7-8 hours of sleep, as opposed to 9-10 in younger adults. However, the idea that seniors need far less sleep is something addressed by many organizations, including the National Institute on Aging.

It’s an understandable myth, though, because it’s based on human observation. People likely see their older parents or grandparents staying up later than them and waking up earlier all the time. Naturally, they assume that they just need less sleep than them. Unfortunately, what they’re observing is actually severe senior insomnia, a problem that doesn’t get enough attention even from the medical community.

This complex problem may be related to multiple factors, including stress, physical pain, and even disrupted circadian rhythms. It’s a big part of why you often see seniors napping during the day for hours at a time: they’re simply not sleeping enough at night. However, there are many other issues at play here that could be affecting how well older adults are sleeping.

Factors Contributing to Increased Sleep in Older Adults

So, if seniors don’t naturally need more sleep, why do they spend so much of their day sleeping? Just how much sleep do the elderly need? Again, doctors say people over the age of 65 need 7-8 hours. Seniors who sleep throughout the day or who struggle to get out of bed might be experiencing several different factors that keep them in bed longer than necessary.

Physical Factors

As our bodies age and deteriorate, we may experience many issues that affect our sleep, including:

  • Sleep Architecture: Sleep architecture is the pattern of your sleep as you move through non-rapid eye movement and rapid eye movement sleep. The latter type is when you dream, which is where much of the most important sleep occurs. Unfortunately, as you age, your body spends less time in this stage, which leaves you feeling more tired even if you sleep longer.
  • Medical Conditions: As we age, our bodies start wearing down and experiencing multiple sleep conditions that can make life difficult. Problems like insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome can make it hard to fall asleep at night. Alternately, narcolepsy may make a senior seem to fall asleep more often, even if their sleep is restless.
  • Medications: Seniors may take a lot of medications that can either cause restless sleep at night or even drowsiness during the day. Cold and allergy medications can potentially make it harder to get deeper sleep at night, which makes a senior more likely to sleep during the day. Other medicines that may affect your sleep include asthma, blood pressure, and diabetes treatments.

Psychological Factors

Many elderly people may experience psychological issues that can affect their sleep, including:

  • Stress and Anxiety: Seniors, unfortunately, often experience heavy levels of stress and anxiety that may keep them up at night worrying about themselves, their loved ones, and the world in general. As a result, they may nap more during the day to catch up on missed sleep.
  • Depression: Seniors often experience heavy levels of depression due to physical pain, losing loved ones, and much more. Unfortunately, depression often causes extreme sleep, which may cause a senior to stay in bed far longer than normal.

Lifestyle Factors

As we age, our lifestyle changes and may affect our sleep. This issue may include:

  • Reduced Physical Activities: Most seniors aren’t as physically active as they were when they were younger due to various health conditions. Unfortunately, a lack of exercise can make it harder to fall asleep at night and cause a senior to sleep more during the day.
  • Changed Daily Routines: When seniors retire and simplify their life, there are simply going to be days when they don’t have a lot to do and get bored. That boredom is likely to cause them to nap simply because they can’t think of anything better to do.

Health Consequences of Excessive Sleep in Seniors

Now that you know the answer to the question “How much sleep do the elderly need,” it’s important to understand the dangerous effects of excessive sleep. Simply put, too much sleep can cause many health problems, including:

  • Gaining weight, which can further affect sleep patterns
  • Physical pain caused by lying down too long
  • Troubles concentrating on daily tasks
  • Higher risk of heart attacks and stroke
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes or worse symptoms
  • Mental health concerns like depression and anxiety

Managing this issue properly requires talking to your loved one’s doctor and figuring out why they are sleeping too much. There’s a good chance that they simply need to change their lifestyle, including exercising more or getting a more comfortable bed that minimizes their pain at night.

Tips for Promoting Healthy Sleep in Older Adults

The following tips may help you rest more effectively and minimize both excessive and reduced sleep:

  • Creating a Sleep-Friendly Environment: Try to produce an environment that makes sleeping easier. The CDC suggests keeping the room as dark as possible, creating a clear path to the restroom, getting rid of white or blue light, wearing an eye mask during sleep, keeping temperatures cool, and removing television or work areas from the bedroom.
  • Establishing a Consistent Sleep Schedule: Sleep Foundation states that creating a consistent sleep schedule is important. There’s no right or wrong time for a 70-year-old to wake up: as long as you stay consistent, you should sleep better. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day and put away distractions at least an hour before sleep (your phone should be off).
  • Encouraging Physical Activity: Find senior-friendly exercises, such as walking, step aerobic, water aerobic, light pilates, dumbbell routines, chair yoga, gentle Tai Chi, and balance routines that keep you or your senior physically active. Even 15 minutes of exercise is better than none. When all else fails, find a local mall and walk for a while to get your heart pumping.
  • Managing Stress and Anxiety: Reducing your stress and anxiety or that of your loved one may improve sleep at night and stop sleeping during the day. There are many ways to naturally manage this problem, including exercise, breathing techniques, meditation, and even counseling. Anti-anxiety medications can also help reduce these symptoms and minimize their potency.
  • Seeking Medical Evaluation If Sleep Changes Persist: If these simple changes don’t improve sleep, it’s important to consider a sleep study. A medical sleep evaluation can gauge why a senior is sleeping too much, including potential insomnia risks and much more. Understanding the medical reasoning behind your sleep struggles can give you a better glimpse into treatment.

People Also Ask

What does it mean when an elderly person sleeps a lot?

They might not get enough sleep at night, wake up repeatedly at night, or may even have narcolepsy or other related sleep syndromes.

Is it normal for an elderly person to sleep all day?

An elderly person shouldn’t sleep all day because they only need 7-8 hours to stay healthy. If they do sleep all day, they could seriously damage their health.

Why does my 90-year-old mother sleep so much?

At that age, she may have many physical and emotional health concerns that make it hard for her to sleep restfully at night, forcing her to sleep longer during the day.

How much sleep does an 80-year-old need?

Sleep experts believe that an 80-year-old needs 7-8 hours of sleep a night to stay healthy. Excessive sleep may be due to poor sleep patterns at night.

Photo of author

Stevie Compango, CNSC, CPT

Stevie is Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for the past 10 years. He specializes in mobility and chronic pain management. His methods have helped thousands of clients improve the quality of their life through movement.

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  1. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/what-happens-in-a-sleep-study
  2. https://www.stress.org/how-stress-affects-seniors-and-how-to-manage-it
  3. https://exsci.cuchicago.edu/kinesiology/10-senior-friendly-exercises/
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