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How Does Sleep Change Throughout the Lifespan?

Sleep needs change as we age, and individual sleep needs can vary depending on a number of additional factors. Sleep is regulated by our circadian rhythm, an internal “body clock” that tells us when to feel sleepy and when to feel alert. If we go too long without sleeping, a function called sleep-wake homeostasis kicks in and makes us feel tired.

Still-developing babies and young children require the most sleep, with most children sleeping 9-10 hours and babies sleeping as many as 18 hours a night. Teens require eight to 10 hours of sleep per night, and adults should be sleeping between seven and nine hours a night.

Older adults also need between seven and eight hours of sleep per night. However, seniors often suffer from light sleep, an earlier circadian rhythm, multiple nighttime awakenings, and a shorter overall sleep time. These problems may be exacerbated by medication or medical conditions.

Some people may have a circadian rhythm that is at odds with societal requirements. For example, teenagers are programmed to wake up and go to sleep later, which is contradictory with early school start times. Likewise, shift workers with constantly changing schedules may find it difficult to keep a consistent bedtime, and their sleep may suffer as a result.

Even among healthy adults, some people are programmed to wake up earlier and some people prefer to wake up later. It’s increasingly recognized that jobs that require early wake times may cause chronic insomnia and secondary health conditions for night owls. Emerging research also suggests that women have a shorter circadian rhythm and require more sleep than men.


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