Newborn babies sleep most of the time. Many teenagers either resist sleep at all costs or sleep all day. Seniors often have trouble sleeping through the night.

Does that mean that we need more or less sleep in our teen years and less sleep as we age?

Our bodies adapt to less sleep as we get less through the years, but that doesn’t mean it is healthy, or beneficial. Six to eight hours of sleep each night is still the recommended guideline.

How much sleep are we getting?*

Infants naturally sleep up to 18 hours each day. Elementary school children need more than nine hours of sleep each day to help their bodies and minds grow properly. Teenagers should get nine hours of sleep as well because their bodies and brains are still growing and developing. And adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Although that’s what experts recommend, the reality is that Americans get far less sleep than that.

A Gallup Poll1 shows that in 1942, 45 percent of Americans reported getting eight hours of sleep a night. By 2013 that number had shrunk to 29 percent.

The interesting thing is that the majority of Americans2 (56%) say they believe they get enough sleep; regardless of the number of hours. However, forty-three percent say they would feel better if they got more sleep.

Regardless of what people say about their sleep patterns, The National Sleep Foundation wants to know more. It has created a research tool called the Sleep Health Index3 to quantify the sleep health of Americans for research purposes.

It measures three sleep factors:

  1. Sleep quality
  2. Sleep duration
  3. Disordered sleep – commonly known as sleep disorders

The first survey measured sleep in 1253 adults and found that they ranked on each factor as follows (the higher the number the better the sleep health; highest possible rank was 100):

  • Sleep quality: 68
  • Sleep duration: 79
  • Disordered sleep: 81

How much sleep do we need?
Certainly, life’s responsibilities get in the way of a good night’s sleep. From interrupted sleep when caring for infants to high stress jobs, life can make sleep difficult at best.  By the time adults reach their senior years, their bodies may have become accustomed to less sleep.  Dr. Leila Kheirandish-Gozal, director of clinical sleep research at the University of Chicago says that while the body and mind can adapt to inadequate sleep that doesn’t mean there aren’t long term consequences. Interviewed for an article on sleep published in TIME magazine4, she said that over time, insufficient sleep can lead to long term health effects including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension5 (high blood pressure). Other experts worry it may be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s disease6.

The number of hours of sleep that individuals need to function is a topic of wide debate, except with The National Sleep Foundation7 . They have published guidelines for healthy sleep at different ages that are widely accepted as the standard in the medical community. In fact, the latest recommendations were developed after consulting with a wide range of experts in the fields of sleep, anatomy and psychology as well as pediatricians, neurologists, gerontologists and gynecologists. The guidelines are as follows:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours each day
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
  • School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
  • Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours)
  • Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours

Sleep versus sleep ability
The desire to sleep is different than the ability to sleep.  That’s where lifestyle and other factors come into play and potentially disrupt sleep. For example, as people age, sleep may be interrupted more frequently. People may sleep for shorter periods of time and be awakened more easily. Frequently, the side effect of medications can result in the interruption of sleep.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke8 calls it “sleep-wake homeostasis” which is a biological function of the body that keeps track of how much sleep it needs. It reminds the body to sleep and when it does, it determines how deep the sleep is. However, many things can interfere with the body’s natural regulation of sleep including:

  • Health conditions, illness and disease
  • Medications
  • Stress levels
  • The environment in which you sleep
  • Food and drink intake
  • Exposure to light

How do you know if you are getting enough sleep?
You may think you are getting the hours of sleep your body needs to function well. To make sure, review this checklist9 of signs to ensure that you are well-rested.

  • You regularly get at least seven hours of sleep every 24 hours
  • When you lay down to sleep, it doesn’t take longer than 15 or 20 minutes to get to sleep
  • You don’t feel as though you have “tossed and turned” all night
  • When you wake up you feel rested rather than tired
  • You feel awake for most of the day, rather then sleepy or exhausted
  • People don’t tell you that you snore during the night (if you do snore, it’s a possible sign of sleep apnea which can also disrupt sleep)

Ways to improve your sleep
After all is said and done the most important sleeping tip is how to actually get a good night’s sleep. It differs for every individual, but here are things to consider to improve your quality of sleep:

  • Turn off electronic devices one hour before bedtime; give your brain a chance to rest
  • Do not sleep with blue screens in the bedroom; they disrupt the brain’s ability to rest
  • Do not drink caffeine before bedtime. The number of hours that you should refrain from drinking it varies widely according to the individual
  • Do not drink alcohol before bedtime. Alcohol may make you sleepy initially but it will activate the brain and wake you up later in the night
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal immediately before going to bed
  • Sleep in a cool, quiet, dark room
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day

A good night’s sleep is certainly as much a science as an art. Treat yourself well, eat well, get some exercise and give your brain a chance to slow down before you lay down to sleep. Sleep helps to recharge your body and your mind and will contribute to good health as you age.