Bad news, parents. If you thought those early newborn days marked the least sleep of your life, just wait until you hit 40. New research from the Medical College of Georgia found that age 40 is, on average, the age at which people get the least sleep, so if you’re a 40-year-old with a newborn, you’re in for an exhausting year.
Researchers from MCG took a look at sleep data from more than 11,000 participants who wore a monitoring device on their wrists for seven days. The data was originally compiled for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, released in 2020. The data revealed that sleep duration generally declined from childhood until around age 40 and then started to increase again by age 50.
The time participants actually went to sleep, called Clock Time for Sleep Onset, or CTSO, increased with age until around age 20, where it peaked, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who was ever 20 years old. Teenagers had the biggest weekday and weekend difference in CTSO, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has ever been a teenager or been the parent of a teenager. After age 20, data suggest that people begin to go to bed earlier. Forty-year-olds are mostly asleep by 10:30 p.m.; by the time you reach 50, bedtimes start getting earlier and earlier.
For the 40-somethings, though, late-ish bedtimes, coupled with early wake times for work and getting the kids ready for school, mean that early-middle age is a tired, tired time of life. Sleep duration presented as a U-shaped curve, with your 40s at the bottom, meaning less sleep, then began to pick back up for those in their 50s, meaning more sleep.
Sleep efficiency, which is the amount of time you actually sleep during the chunk of time you devote to sleep, decreases with age overall but is pretty standard from age 30 to age 60. That means during this stage of life, most of us aren’t sleeping like a baby, but we aren’t staring idly at the ceiling all night either.
There are racial discrepancies in sleep as well as age discrepancies. Black Americans get less sleep and sleep less efficiently than other races and ethnicities, while Mexican Americans go to bed earlier than others but sleep less efficiently. Adequate sleep plays a vital role in overall health, so more research is needed to determine if sleep patterns contribute to health disparities commonly seen across racial and ethnic lines.
Recent research published in the journal Sleep Advances linked a lack of sleep to cardiovascular events in Black people, and Black people are 30% more likely than white people to die from heart disease.
“I think what these sleep parameters mean, in terms of people’s health, is that if you are a physician or other provider and patients come in with some kind of complaint about their sleep, you need to interpret what they tell you in light of their stage in life and what their likely sleep patterns are going to be,” Dr. Vaughn McCall, chair of the MCG Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior and study co-author, said in a statement.