Do you need less sleep as you get older?

I’m not sure what the acceptable term for the aged is this month (though I bet it isn’t “the aged”), but I hope they will forgive any lapses of nomenclature as I strike a blow against age discrimination. You see, you don’t need less sleep as you get older.

Sleep is a little strange, mind you. Isn’t it odd that, in a world bristling with danger, animals just tune out for a few hours each day? Yet without it a person becomes a gibbering wreck and, at length, a corpse. We don’t have anything like the whole story about sleep, so if I’m contradicted next week by startling new evidence (as the papers like to say), just know that I did my best.

So far as we know, then, you don’t need less sleep as you age, though it is true that as you get older you are more likely to have difficulty sleeping.

One reason for this is a set of apparently normal changes that occur as you age. Sleep becomes shallower and more fragmented. The body clock, which in youth is pinned to the passage of night and day, starts to drift in later life so that you get sleepy earlier in the evening and wake earlier in the morning. Since heading to bed too early is frowned upon a lot of people resist the urge and end up losing sleep.

The other reason is that many diseases — which, alas, are just more common in the old than the young — lead to disturbed sleep.

But just because some people don’t get as much sleep as they used to doesn’t mean that they don’t need as much sleep as they used to. Sleep surveys indicate that, left to their own devices, adults get about the same amount of sleep (on average) whatever their age.

There are many obstacles to quality time in the arms of Morpheus — think of all the overtime he has to clock up with teenagers, for a start — but growing old isn’t one of them.

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