Mar. 1, 2012 -- While it's a common belief that getting older means less sleep and more fatigue, a new study suggests that older adults may actually enjoy better sleep than their younger counterparts.
Researchers conducted phone surveys of more than 150,000 Americans and found that people in their 80s had the fewest complaints about sleep disturbances and daytime fatigue compared to other age groups. The study appears in the March edition of the journal Sleep.
Reports of poor sleep were associated with health problems and depression, and women said they had more sleep disturbances and were more tired than men. The quality of sleep improved throughout the life span, although there was a small increase in sleep difficulties during middle age.
"These results suggest that the often-reported increase in sleep problems is a non-linear phenomenon, mediated by factors other than physiologic aging," wrote the authors, led by Michael Grandner of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
While older adults in this study reported having less trouble sleeping, previous research has found that the total amount of sleep generally decreased with age by around 10 minutes per decade. The same research also found that older adults experienced less slow-wave sleep, considered by some experts to be "good" sleep.
"This highlights the difference between what we see when we look at someone's sleep and what they tell us when we ask about their sleep," Grandner told ABC News in an email, and there could be a number of reasons for the discrepancy.
"Perhaps with other pain or health issues going on, especially if they have been going on for a long time (which is common in older age), those older people don't really see their sleep as a problem, compared to everything else," Grandner said. "They might also have attitudes and beliefs about sleep that don't place much importance on getting a good night's sleep. After all, we live in a 'sleep when I'm dead' society that seems to think that sleep is for sissies."
Sleep problems may also affect the various age groups in different ways. Younger people may experience stressors not affecting adults in their 80s, such as those associated with work or raising children.
"One study found that people had less stress and slept more soundly after they're retired, and older people may also be doing better economically than younger people," said Dr. Bruce Nolan, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. Nolan had no involvement with the new study.
Teenagers and young adults may also suffer from sleep problems related to exposure to technology or other factors.
Those who live into their 80s and report getting good sleep and feeling less tired may actually be in better health than others who are decades younger.
"If you actually get to that age and you're in fairly good health, you don't have sleep disorders often seen in people in their 50s and 60s, like sleep apnea and insomnia," said Dr. Beth Malow, director of the Vanderbilt Sleep Disorders Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "Sleep apnea and insomnia are associated with major health disorders, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes." Malow was not involved in the study.
People who did not live to their 80s may have been living with some of these chronic conditions that adversely affect sleep, she explained.
Implications for All Age Groups
There are a number of messages Grandner said people of all age groups can take away from this research.
"Younger adults should know that they are in the age group that is most likely to experience sleep problems, so they may need to work extra hard to find time for quality sleep. Those in middle age, especially women, should expect an uptick in problem nights, but possibly rest assured that this uptick will fade in time," he said.
Older adults should know that increasing age does not mean increasing fatigue, and should be on the alert if they start to become excessively sleepy.
"They may not sleep like babies, but being older does not mean people can't get good quality sleep and have a good quality of life," said Nolan.
Malow said, "If you're sleepy when you're older, rather than attribute it to their age, I think it should trigger an evaluation for a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea."