Getting older is unlikely to hurt our quality of sleep, in fact it could improve it, according to a new report.
"This flies in the face of popular belief," says Dr. Michael Grandner, lead author of the study that appears Thursday in the journal Sleep.
"These results force us to re-think what we know about sleep in older people — men and women."
Grandner, a researcher at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the Perlman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues examined the sleep patterns of more than 155,000 adults who took part in a telephone survey.
Participants were asked about their quality of sleep — whether or not it was disturbed — and how tired they felt. Factors such as race, income, education, depressed mood and general health were also taken into account.
The researchers found that sleep quality was highest among the over-80 year-old group and worst between 40 and 59 years, and that women were more likely to report disturbed sleep than men. The level of tiredness reported closely resembled sleep quality.
Grandner points out the results don't indicate whether people are getting better sleep, but rather that their perception of sleep and alertness improves.
"Even if sleep among older Americans is actually worse than in younger adults, feelings about it still improve with age," he says.
According to Grandner, the results suggest older people with sleep problems may have an underlying condition.
"Once you factor out things like illness and depression, older people should be reporting better sleep. If they're not, they need to talk to their doctor. They shouldn't just ignore it."
Broken sleep normal
Professor Leon Lack, head of the Sleep Research Laboratory at Flinders University in Adelaide led a similar study in 2010, which interviewed 1,500 people across Australia.
He says their results found that as people age they are more likely to have broken periods of sleep, but feel less tired during the day.
"[Older people] reported more awakenings across the night than the younger age group, but they reported better quality sleep in the sense that they were feeling better during the day," Lack tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"The sleep that they were getting was probably closer to meeting their sleep need."
According to Lack, the ideal amount of sleep varies across individuals, and with age.
"Some individuals can get by on six-and-a-half hours sleep without feeling sleepy during the day; others need nine," he says.
"There have been some recent experimental studies that have indicated that as we get older our need for sleep declines and we can get by during the day with less sleep at night time."
Lacks adds that there is a growing perception that deep sleep is ideal, something he believes is harmful and unrealistic. He says we should accept that broken sleep, short periods of awakening, is the norm.
"Sleep is more like a roller-coaster through the night — we go down into deep sleep and back into light sleep."