Putting “Beauty Rest” to the Test: How Sleep and Your Age are Connected

By Aneesa Das, MD
The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center

Sleep is essential for muscle repair, strengthening memory, regulating the hormones that are responsible for growth and appetite, and much more. Despite this, the U.S. remains a sleep-deprived nation, with more than 70 million Americans suffering from some form of chronic sleep problem, and it’s taking a major health toll. However, just how much of an impact a lack of sleep brings changes with age. Missing out on sleep can affect anything from behavior to heart health, depending on a person’s stage of life.

As a sleep specialist, I’ve seen that for adults, sleep deprivation can contribute to a variety of health complications. As it accumulates over the years, sleep loss can contribute to obesity, diabetes, depression, and cardiac and blood pressure problems. I often find that adults miss out on sleep because as they age, they are more prone to experiencing interrupted sleep patterns, which can be caused by stress, taking care of children, existing medical conditions, or light and noise disruptions.

Adulthood is also when sleep-related disorders, such as insomnia or sleep apnea, are more likely. Especially for women, biological conditions like menstrual cycles, menopause and pregnancy, are known to impact how well a woman sleeps. Hormonal changes throughout the month and over a woman’s lifetime often have an effect on sleep.

For instance, during menopause, women often experience night sweats and insomnia due to changing levels of hormones. From perimenopause, or the transition phase, when a woman’s ovaries are gradually decreasing the amount of estrogen and progesterone they release, to post-menopause, women tend to report the most sleep problems. Even though total sleep time may not suffer, sleep quality does. This is because symptoms associated with menopause, like hot flashes, can interrupt sleep and cause next-day fatigue.

Certain medications for existing conditions such as heart arrhythmia, high blood pressure, and asthma can also disrupt sleep cycles.

It’s important to understand how much sleep is needed throughout life, as individuals often pay for the lack of sleep later on. According to a 1998 poll by The National Sleep Foundation (NSF), the average woman aged 30 to 60 sleeps only six hours and 41 minutes per night. A more recent 2005 NSF poll showed that women are more likely than men to have difficulty falling asleep and to experience more daytime sleepiness at least a few days a week.

NSF recommends that women get between seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but there’s no real “magic number.” The amount often depends on the individual, so while some may only need seven hours, others may need eight or 9 to be productive and happy the next day.

To improve the chances of getting a good night’s sleep, I recommend avoiding intense exercise at least three hours before bedtime, establishing a wind-down routine that includes dim lighting and eliminating or decreasing any noise disturbances. It’s also beneficial to avoid using electronics (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc.) right before bed, as the blue light they emit can often make it difficult to fall asleep.

Not getting enough sleep can be detrimental to anyone, regardless of age and gender. Sleep is a time the body uses to restore itself and gain its energy, so it’s important for everyone to practice healthy sleeping habits on a regular basis.

Aneesa Das, MD is the assistant director of Sleep Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Dr. Das helps people identify and treat their sleep disorders and any underlying problems related to sleep. She is board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialties in pulmonary disease and sleep medicine.