Many things change with age: physical health and appearance, cognitive abilities, and even personality. People are often surprised to learn that sleep also changes as we grow older. Almost half of older adults report trouble falling or staying asleep. Whether it’s for yourself or an older loved one, you may be wondering, how much sleep do seniors need?

Experts recommended that adults 65 and older get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. However, quantity of sleep may not be as crucial as quality: getting a good night’s sleep is imperative to healthy aging. Notably, older adults need enough deep sleep to help their bodies function. 

What is deep sleep?

There are five stages of sleep that alternate between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (NREM) sleep. The first two stages are considered light sleep. Stage three begins as you enter deep sleep and stage 4 is considered the deepest sleep stage. During deep sleep, breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and brain waves reach their lowest levels.

Stage 5, or REM sleep, begins about 90 minutes after falling asleep (and reoccurs about every 90 minutes). In this stage, your brain is quite active, and you are most likely to dream. While REM sleep is not considered deep sleep, you must first cycle through deep sleep to enter the important REM stage. 

Why is deep sleep important?

While a person needs all the stages of sleep, deep sleep is the most restorative sleep and is especially helpful for brain health. Stage 4, in particular, is known as the healing stage of sleep. Tissue growth and repair take place, hormones are released, and cellular energy is restored. After passing through stage 4, REM sleep occurs, which is vital for memory, learning, and processing emotions. 

When your aging loved one does not get enough deep sleep, their health and wellness can suffer. Inadequate sleep can cause stress, irritability and mood swings. Long-term sleep deprivation can even lead to cognitive impairment or depression. 

Besides their mental health, lack of sleep can reduce how your loved one’s body functions. As a result, the immune system cannot perform as well, leading to a greater risk of illness and infections. Further, studies have even linked lack of sleep to heart problems, diabetes and certain types of cancer. 

So, how much deep sleep does my loved one need?

When figuring out “how much deep sleep do seniors need?” It’s important to also remember it’s the quality that’s most important. For healthy adults, 13 to 23 percent of sleep should be deep sleep. For an average eight-hour night of sleep, that’s roughly 60 to 110 minutes spent in deep sleep. Additionally, most adults spend close to 25 percent of each night in REM sleep. 

However, research shows that deep sleep tends to decrease with age. In fact, some older adults may rarely enter deep sleep. This change can occur in healthy individuals and does not necessarily indicate a sleep disorder. As such, if your loved one is consistently waking throughout the night because of nocturia, anxiety or chronic pain, you should address the issue with their physician. 

How to Create a Sleep Schedule for an Older Loved One

There is no doubt that getting enough deep sleep is essential for aging adults. Unfortunately, many factors can disrupt sleep patterns. Seniors often develop greater sensitivities to their environments. Factors like noise and temperature can affect their sleep. Additionally, conditions like Parkinson’s disease, stroke or arthritis can play a role in sleep quality. 

While having a sleep schedule is commonly associated with newborns and young children, it is just as important for aging loved ones. Use these tips to help you create a realistic schedule that helps your loved one get their best night’s sleep. 

1. Establish Consistency

Determine a bedtime and waking time that works well for your loved one’s daily schedule. Research shows that going to bed and waking up at the same time each day can improve sleep. 

If your loved one opts for a nap during the day, keep it limited to set time and avoid napping too late in the day. The consistency helps a person adjust to a natural sleep rhythm and reinforce their body’s circadian rhythm. Further, the best way to ensure your loved one is getting enough deep sleep is to set aside enough time for sleep in general.

2. Create a Bedtime Routine

Helping your loved one wind down each night can help them fall asleep faster and stay asleep. Try meditating, a warm bath, a glass of warm milk or reading at night. Avoid too much stimulation near bedtime, like exposure to blue light from electronics. Instead, aim to make the room as dark as possible leading up to and throughout sleeping hours. 

See what works for both you and your loved one and make it a part of their nighttime routine.

3. Examine Daily Activities

Look at what your loved one does during the day and think about how it may affect their sleeping habits. For example, some people find that more physical activity throughout the day helps them sleep better. Some individuals learn that napping during the day makes sleeping at night more difficult while other adults are unaffected. 

Also, take into account your loved one’s diet. Alcohol, spicy food, caffeine and high sugar food can contribute to sleep issues. Additionally, eating or drinking too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep. 

The Importance of Sleep for Aging Adults

As we grow older, our bodies make less of the hormones that help us sleep. The result is less efficient sleep, notably less restorative deep sleep, which can be detrimental to aging adults. Through some trial and error, determine a daily schedule complete with a consistent bedtime routine that will help your loved one sleep better. The benefits of a good night’s sleep will undoubtedly improve their overall health and wellness.