Medically reviewed by Leann Poston, M.D. on 9/25/20
Aging causes a lot of changes to the body, most of which aren’t necessarily welcome. One complaint that is common among older adults is that they seem to be more tired, more easily fatigued, and generally have less energy. Often, they will state that they can’t do as much as when they were younger, need longer to recover from physical exertion, and need more time sitting, lying down, or otherwise resting in between daily tasks, chores, and so on. They may start to take naps on occasion when they never used to in their younger years. Bedtime may come earlier, too.
While this is a common complaint, is there any factual basis behind it? Do you have less energy as you age? Does your body produce less energy or use it up faster when you are older? Do you need more sleep when you get older, or a nap to keep you fresh? What exactly happens to your body as you age that makes you more tired or seem to have less energy? Let’s explore this topic further, so we can separate fact from fiction – and offer up some advice on ways that older adults can boost their energy levels, too!
There is no doubt that your body goes through a lot of changes as part of the normal aging process. Some cellular damage or decrease in efficiency is common, though it can vary quite a bit from person to person. But that accounts for only a small fraction of the reported changes in energy associated with age. So what else is going on beneath the surface of this problem?
In fact, there are many chemical and biological processes occurring as you age, several of which are triggered or governed by hormones and similar chemical messengers, which may contribute to a feeling of less energy with age. In women, the massive decreases in estrogen, the primary female sex hormone, are often associated with a variety of bodily changes at menopause. In men, the changes happen more gradually, with a linear, fairly consistent loss of the male sex hormone testosterone over time as men age.
In both cases, however, the decreasing levels and effects of these hormones alter the body’s systems and responses. Some of the ways in which this occurs include through increased difficulty in creating new muscle tissue, decreased muscle mass, changes in fat metabolism, thinning of various tissues of the body (such as the skin), and variations in the efficiency of bodily processes such as digestion and nutrient absorption. This is by no means a comprehensive list but does highlight some of the ways in which a lack of energy – or a perception of less energy – can develop. Less muscle tone or mass, slower metabolic rates, less nutrient absorption – those can easily add up to result in a greater feeling of fatigue, and a sense of having less energy to go about your day.
Bodily changes are not, in fact, the only thing at play in this feeling of less energy, either. In fact, many experts argue that lifestyle changes associated with aging are equally if not more impactful in the sensation of having less energy. Some of the lifestyle factors associated with aging that fall into this category include:
We’ve already taken a look at some of the biological and lifestyle reasons that may explain why older adults feel like they have less energy than when they were younger. At the same time, there may be more serious problems going on that are responsible – and worthy of your attention. Various diseases, illnesses, and conditions can result in greater fatigue, less energy, and similar symptoms. Some of the most common include:
The good news is there are many steps that you can take, at all ages, to help your body maintain energy, maximize your metabolism, and keep up your activity levels. Healthy habits can easily offset and even surpass any kind of organic changes that may result in less energy as you age. While they won’t solve any health-related problems resulting in your reduced energy levels, following these habits will decrease your risk factors for developing many of those health problems in the first place, which means they are a win-win. Tips include:
It’s a myth that older adults don’t need as much sleep as younger adults. From the time an adult is fully-grown, usually in their 20s, until old age, the recommended amount of sleep is around 8 hours per night. There may be a slight decrease in the amount of sleep required at older age, but it would amount to a change of a matter of minutes, not hours or anything extreme. For the most part, sleep requirements stay the same as we age. That doesn’t mean that older adults don’t have more trouble sleeping; however, which often accounts for the perceived shorter sleep periods of many older adults.
Most often, decreased energy or sleepiness in an older adult is nothing to worry about. Trouble sleeping at night can result in decreased quantity or quality of sleep, and, as a result, make it harder to stay awake all day. Therefore, many older adults may fall asleep easily in the afternoon or evening, or take naps. This is not, in and of itself, a sign of any cognitive declines or issues. However, excessive sleepiness, despite a good night’s sleep, may be an early warning sign of some forms of dementia. If you or a loved one are experiencing marked increases in sleepiness, and are concerned about dementia or other cognitive declines, then it is best to pay a visit to your doctor or healthcare practitioner.
Taking afternoon naps is quite a common trait among many seniors. It is not necessarily a sign of any kind of problem or issue. However, it can be an indication of poor quality or quantity of sleep at night, or underlying mental or physical health issues. If naps are the result of boredom, depression, or similar, then it is best to get those conditions treated and corrected. Naps can disrupt your sleep rhythms, especially if they are long and late in the afternoon or early evening. But provided you have no problem sleeping at night, and no signs or symptoms of underlying health conditions, a short half-hour nap or so during the afternoon is perfectly healthy and normal.
It’s true that aging means a small decrease in energy levels, and there’s nothing you can directly do about that. But much of what older adults perceive as fatigue or having less energy is actually the result of those biologic changes, coupled with numerous lifestyle changes, bad habits, and mental and physical health problems. It is entirely possible to remain active, healthy, and with 80% or more of the energy you had when you were younger, even into extreme old age. That’s why we all know someone in their 80s or 90s who seems to have more energy and is harder to fatigue than a 30 or 40-year-old. That can be you – if you follow healthy habits for aging, and make a conscious effort to live a more active lifestyle, combined with supplements, vitamins, and good medical care. To your health!
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While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.