As you age, your sleep patterns can change. Everything from increased daytime napping to shortened sleep cycles at night can occur with normal aging. Yet your environment and lifestyle can also play a huge role in your sleep health. How often you exercise, the food you eat, how much water you drink and your stress levels can all impact quality of sleep.
"Once you reach your 20s, your body has more or less established a stable sleep-wake cycle," explains Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University. "However, many people may not understand this cycle until later in life, such as in their 30s or 40s."
That's why it's important to learn how sleep changes by decade, from how your lifestyle choices impact your sleep, to various challenges you might face as you age (and how to overcome them). This can help you promote good sleep and in turn develop healthy sleep habits for life.
Whether you're in your 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, here's everything you should know about common age-related sleep changes to look out for and what you can do to navigate them, according to sleep experts.
Sleep in Your 20s
The CDC recommends that all adults ages 18 to 60, regardless of age group, should get seven or more hours of sleep per night. Yet for people in their 20s, hitting this goal might not always be the case. Active lifestyles, staying up late and/or getting up early for school and/or work can often result in less than the recommended seven hours of sleep a night.
Paul Kaloostian, M.D., a California-based neurosurgeon, says that because this age group is more flexible in terms of physical needs, good sleep habits—while recommended—aren't needed super-consistently, but should at least be practiced more often than not.
The brain, as he explains, is "very plastic" in this age group. However, there are still steps 20-somethings can take to build lifelong healthy sleeping habits. "People in their 20s should avoid significant intake of caffeine (more than one cup a day), minimize stress, and exercise at least 30 minutes a day to ensure adequate sleep," he suggests.
Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, Psy.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the author of Become Your Child's Sleep Coach, says people in their 20s who are struggling to establish an earlier rise time can use simple steps to wake up earlier. The key, she says, is consistency: Getting up at the same time every day (or at least trying to) can help you wake up earlier and fall asleep earlier (and more easily). Exposing yourself to natural sunlight and eating breakfast within an hour of waking up can also help your mind associate the morning with getting ready to start the day.
Sleep in Your 30s
Avena explains that the amount of sleep people get tends to decrease with age. "Research has shown that Stage 3 of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep decreases by 2 percent each decade up until the age of 60," she says. "Rapid eye movement (REM) also decreases until about 60 with each decade."
Though 30-somethings may start to feel these expected age-related effects, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome at this point in life are environmental factors (e.g. work schedule, technology use, family obligations, financial stress). Your 30s are also a smart time to address any sleep disorders, like insomnia or sleep apnea, which can both affect overall health in the long term if left untreated.
"People in their 30s are typically now out of school and working and/or raising a family," Dr. Kaloostian says. This means parents often have to balance their own sleep (and sleep quality) on the sleep habits of their children, especially babies and toddlers. Schneeberg adds that parents in their 30s can teach their children to be good sleepers, which can then help parents develop healthy sleep patterns themselves.
"Most plans [for children] include a consistent and calming bedtime routine each night followed by the use of self-comforting objects (a blanket or stuffed animal for a younger child and a reading light and some books for older ones)," she says. "Once the routine is over and your child has items for self-comfort, you can gradually taper away your presence."
However, the general advice for 20- and 30-somethings remains the same: consistent sleep-wake schedules, limiting caffeine, getting enough exercise, drinking plenty of water and eating healthy foods to promote good sleep.
Sleep in your 40s
Dr. Kaloostian says people in their 40s should follow the same sleep health advice as those in their 20s and 30s. During this decade in particular, though, it's important to educate yourself on how your sleep may change in the decades that follow (and what you can do ahead of time to prevent some of those changes).
"Sleep doesn't just mirror your age, it mirrors your health, too," Avena explains. "Certain health conditions and even your health from day to day can impact how well you sleep at night."
While healthy sleep guidelines are mostly universal, Avena recommends tailoring them to your own specific needs for maximum benefits. "When do you function best? Early in the morning or late at night?" she says to ask yourself. "When you understand your body's internal clock, you can start to build a healthy sleep routine around that."
Establishing a ritual before bed can also help signal to your brain that you'll be going to sleep soon, Avena continues, "like taking a shower and brushing your teeth before hopping into bed." Avoiding too much napping (especially later in the afternoon) can also be helpful in sleeping better through the night.
Sleep in your 50s
Your 50s may bring on the most pronounced sleep changes. "People in their 50s start to develop medical co-morbidities often requiring numerous medications, which can greatly affect one's ability to obtain adequate sleep," Dr. Kaloostian says. In addition to leading a healthy lifestyle, he also suggests consulting with your primary care doctor to "ensure that there are no medications contributing to causing insomnia."
This decade in life also sees gender-based sleep changes, particularly for women going or beginning to go through menopause. "During menopause, rates of insomnia in women drastically increase," Avena says. The latest studies suggest that up to 26 percent of menopausal women experience sleep difficulties that qualify as insomnia. "This means that we may see sleep quality decline in the 50s for women specifically."
Dr. Kaloostian adds that a decreased function of the hypothalamus portion of the brain, and changes in melatonin and cortisol hormones, begin to occur in the 50s age group as well, which can also impact quality and duration of sleep. This is why people often begin to sleep less as they get older or wake up more frequently throughout the night.
A great way for people in their 50s (and beyond) to promote good sleep is to get as much natural sunlight as possible, which Dr. Kaloostian says people tend to get less of as they get older. Stress management is also crucial for falling and staying asleep better (here are some helpful strategies for managing stress).
The bottom line: regardless of age, leading a healthy lifestyle is important to quality sleep. Whether you're in your 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, give yourself enough time to get a good night's sleep and take care of yourself throughout the day by eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, and drinking plenty of water. For any sleep concerns, always consult a doctor first to figure out a sleep management plan that works best for your individual needs.