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As an infant or small child, the people caring for you may have crossed their fingers and hoped you slept through the night.

As adults, you may find you do the same for yourself.

Throughout your life, you hear about the importance of sleep, and the messaging may change over the years. As you grow older, the focus may shift to mitigating or delaying chronic diseases and conditions.

The CDC reports that a lack of sleep is associated with depression, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. They also note that about one-third of people in the United States report not getting enough sleep.

Though everyone is different, there are some physical and mental issues that may affect you at certain stages of life.

Here’s how to get the sleep you need, no matter how many birthdays you have under your belt.

While the importance of sleep stays constant, some of the reasons you need sleep and the amount you need can change over the years.

The CDC recommends teenagers ages 13 to 18 get 8 to 10 hours of sleep per 24 hours. When a person hits adulthood, the guidelines change:

  • People ages 18 to 60 should get at least 7 hours of sleep per night.
  • People ages 61 to 64 need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
  • People ages 65 and older need 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.

The National Institute on Aging considers it a myth that people need less sleep as they age and suggests all adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society recommend adults sleep 7 or more hours per night.

Sleeping more than 9 hours may be appropriate for young adults, people recovering from illness, or people trying to catch up on sleep. It’s generally not recommended for healthy adults.

“The amount of sleep adults need remains consistent throughout their lifetime,” says Lauri Leadley, a registered polysomnographic technologist, clinical sleep educator, and president of Valley Sleep Center.

Still, she acknowledges that sleep can get more challenging as you age.

“Older people spend less time in the deeper REM stages of sleep, causing an issue for consistent deep sleep,” she says. “In addition, the circadian rhythm changes with age, causing earlier sleeping hours and earlier awakening hours.”

What are the sleep stages?

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke lists four sleep stages, each important in its own way.

Stage 1Non-REM sleepHeartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow down.
Stage 2Non-REM sleepHeartbeat and breathing continue to slow. Temperature drops. Eye movements cease. Brain activity slows with brief intervals of electrical activity.
Stage 3Non-REM sleepHeartbeat and breathing slow to the lowest levels of sleep. Muscles relax. It may be hard to wake up.
Stage 4REM sleepEyes move from side to side rapidly, despite being closed. Mixed brain activity. Dreams typically occur in this stage.

Though you reach legal adulthood at age 18, research has consistently shown that the brain develops until around your 25th birthday.

Leadley says quality sleep is essential to this development. During this time, you need sleep for:

  • supporting continued brain development
  • organizing and storing memories
  • keeping up with academic and professional life
  • maintaining mental and emotional health
  • maintaining energy levels for day-to-day life

“​​Quality sleep aids the brain’s ability to organize and store memories,” she says. “Without it, one may feel forgetful more often. Lack of sleep may also result in the development of artificial memories.”

For example, a person may have an “artificial memory” they turned the stove off before heading out to work.

Busy lives

Often, people in their late teens and early 20s are attending college, trade school, graduate programs, or starting their careers, which can affect sleep.

“Being…in school or starting work also results in later nights out, and [people often keep] an early wake schedule to get to work,” says Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board certified psychiatrist, sleep medicine expert, and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine.

“This particular combination can lead to insufficient sleep times,” he notes.

Insufficient sleep times may affect students’ mental health.

A 2019 cross-sectional survey of 206 medical students in Saudi Arabia suggested that poor sleep quality was linked to a higher prevalence of stress, anxiety, and depression, which can affect academic performance.

A review of research published in 2021 indirectly supports this claim by showing that better sleep quality improves mental well-being.

Priorities

Dimitriu and Leadley say the root cause of lack of sleep in the late teens and early 20s often comes down to not prioritizing it.

Shifting perspective on rest as a must-do instead of a nice-to-do can help mitigate issues caused by lack of sleep. It can also lay a foundation for good sleep habits moving forward.

“Your relationships and careers won’t be worth anything if you sacrifice sleep,” Leadley says.

She compares sleep to charging your cell phone battery.

“Think of your sleep as your energy source for your brain and body. If we don’t plug in our cell phones, it doesn’t get us through the day,” she says. “If you don’t charge your body’s battery, eventually it will run down…or not work well.”

Your brain may be fully developed in your late 20s and 30s, but sleep is still essential. During this life stage, sleep is important for:

  • adapting to major life events
  • preserving energy if you choose to become a parent
  • maintaining performance in work and life
  • maintaining mental and emotional health

This time may involve huge landmarks, like marriage and parenthood.

Love and marriage (and babies)

This is the period when some adults may choose to partner up and become parents.

According to the Pew Research Center, the average age of a first-time marriage was 28 for women and 30 for men in the United States in 2019. The average age a person becomes a mother for the first time in the United States is 26.4 years old.

An analysis of live births from 1972 to 2015 published in 2017 indicated that the average age of first-time fathers was about 31 years old.

It’s not just a cliche that sleep changes during the postpartum period.

Both mothers and fathers reported a steep decline in sleep satisfaction during the first months after having a baby. They also said it didn’t go back to pre-pregnancy levels for up to 6 years, according to a study of more than 2,500 women and 2,100 men published in 2019.

The American Thyroid Association estimates 5 to 10 percent of women experience postpartum thyroiditis, inflammation thought to be due to an autoimmune condition. Insomnia is a side effect of this condition.

Work and life performance

Dimitriu adds that career growth can also cause stress and cause a person to lose sleep. As these life changes pile up, he says that people may cast aside habits that had previously helped them sleep to free up more time.

Research shows that’s problematic, because a lack of sleep can negatively affect a person’s ability to perform well at home and work.

A 2017 scoping review of literature indicated sleep disturbances could endanger worker health and safety.

An older study from 2008 indicated that sleep-deprived individuals made more errors.

A 2019 study suggested that mothers who got insufficient sleep were less likely to implement positive parenting techniques.

But Dimitriu points out that stress can make it more difficult to sleep. He suggests:

  • exercise
  • meditation
  • regular bed and wake times
  • connecting with friends and family outside of your immediate household

New sleep concerns may emerge in your 40s. These include:

Sleep remains important to maintain:

  • mental and emotional health
  • recovery from stress
  • exercise recovery

Sleep apnea

One 2018 study indicated that moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea, a condition involving temporary breathing lapses during sleep, often begins at age 40 for women.

The condition is more common in men, often developing even earlier.

The study also suggested mild to severe sleep apnea was prevalent in men at age 20 and continued to increase until they reached age 80.

The condition may reduce sleep quality.

A 2019 study indicated that all participants considered high risk for obstructive sleep apnea also had poor sleep quality. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine lists “excessive daytime sleepiness” as a symptom of the condition.

Jeff Rodgers, DMD, D-ABDSM, D-ASBA, a Georgia-based sleep apnea expert, says obstructive sleep apnea can cause fragmented sleep, which occurs when you bounce around in sleep stages.

“We all need light, deep, and REM sleep,” Rodgers says. “Most people are aware that REM sleep is when you’re dreaming. Think of fragmented sleep as an interruption in your dream. You literally may bounce out of REM too soon and have some light sleep or even wake up.”

Dimitriu suggests that individuals in their 40s visit their doctor to evaluate the risk and likelihood of sleep apnea and seek further testing if necessary.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says lifestyle changes, such as losing any excess weight to reach a moderate weight or using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, can help treat sleep apnea.

Dimitriu also suggests limiting alcohol intake. Research has linked alcohol consumption to an increased risk of developing sleep apnea.

The CDC recommends women limit alcohol to one drink per day or less and men keep it to two drinks or fewer per day.

Hormonal changes

Menopause also typically happens during this 10-year span.

Postmenopausal women ages 40 to 59 were more likely than premenopausal women in the same age bracket to have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, according to the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey published in 2017.

“The declining estrogen levels that occur during menopause, as well as sleep sweats, are associated with insomnia,” Leadley says. “Estrogen plays a key role in brain function as well as the impact of sleep.”

Melatonin production

A 2020 review notes that production of melatonin decreases between ages 40 to 45. Rodgers notes this decline could affect the sleep-wake cycle.

Despite all these changes, it’s essential to continue emphasizing good sleep habits at this age.

“Good sleep is important for memory, mental health, ability to deal with stressors, and recovery from physical exertion,” says Rodgers.

Some people may wish to take melatonin supplements to make up for the decrease in their natural production of it, though the American Academy of Sleep Medicine advised against melatonin for treating insomnia in 2017.

Exercise

Leadley recommends a more permanent solution instead.

“Exercise is the key,” she says. “Your muscles and tissues are repaired during this slow-wave sleep period, [the deepest phase of sleep], so if you give your body more repair work due to increased physical exertion, your body will respond with more slow-wave sleep. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every other day or more.”

Physical health concerns related to sleep increase with age.

Heart disease

The likelihood of heart disease increases with age, with individuals ages 65 and over at the highest risk, according to the American Heart Association. Rodgers cautions that this makes undiagnosed sleep apnea even more problematic.

Because obstructive sleep apnea causes drops in oxygen flow, Rodgers says it can lead to conditions and events like:

A 2021 study of adults with a mean age of 61 suggested that insomnia was highly prevalent in people with coronary heart disease.

But some medications used to manage heart disease can interfere with sleep, Rodgers says, such as beta-blockers. He suggests speaking with healthcare professionals about potential effects on sleep and flagging them if they occur after beginning treatment.

Loneliness

Physical health issues are not the only sleep-related concern at this age.

The CDC reports that older adults are at an increased risk of loneliness, in part because they’re generally more likely to have lost family and friends or live alone.

Research of available literature showed that poor sleep can contribute to loneliness.

Dimitriu suggests turning the time to oneself into an additional cause to focus on sleep.

Focus on a healthy lifestyle

“As careers get established and kids grow up, it’s a perfect time to focus more on one’s health and longevity,” Dimitriu says.

He suggests:

  • getting back into a regular sleep routine if you broke out of it in previous years
  • maintaining healthy habits, such as exercise

A 2017 study involving people with a median age of 57 indicated that greater variability in sleep and wake times were associated with:

  • higher alcohol intake
  • more sedentary time
  • insufficient rest

Participating in group exercise may help enhance your overall well-being, according to one 2017 study involving older adults in Japan.

Sleep is vital throughout our lives.

Though the amount of sleep we need tends to remain consistent throughout adulthood, different physical and lifestyle changes may affect our sleep as we get older.

Life changes like starting a family as well as physical changes like menopause, sleep apnea, and heart disease can also affect the quality and duration of sleep.

Experts suggest prioritizing sleep throughout your life, as it can help reduce the risk of physical and mental health conditions.

Exercise, meditation, and maintaining a regular sleep schedule can all contribute to better sleep.

Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.