Why You Seem to Have Less Energy with Age
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. Bed time 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!
Body Changes Resulting in a Feeling of Less Energy with Age
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 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.
Lifestyle Factors Play a Large Role in Having Less Energy
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:
- Less physical activity or exercise. This creates a vicious cycle, where things become harder to do, and you feel like you have less energy to do them. As a result, you exercise less or are less active. Rinse and repeat, and you have a recipe for one of the most common reasons older adults report having less energy than when they were younger.
- Poor diet or nutrition. The aforementioned physical changes to nutrient absorption are one aspect of this, but many older adults also relax their dietary standards somewhat and are more likely to indulge in less healthy options. At the same time, some adults report feeling less hungry with age (which is, again, a result of changing levels of hormones and other chemical messengers in the body), which can make it harder to eat as much or as wide a variety of foods, resulting in poorer nutrition.
- Older adults, especially those who are retired, are not generally expected to be as physically active, fit, or capable as younger adults. As with exercise, this can be a self-reinforcing cycle leading to less flexibility, mobility, and activity, or self-imposed, artificial limits on what you are capable of doing. That adds up to a more sedentary lifestyle for many older adults.
- Smoking, alcohol, and other drugs – including many prescription medications – can result in fatigue or a sensation of less energy. As health problems tend to increase with age, and it is more likely you’ll be on medications compared to when you were younger, this can explain some of the perceived “less energy” situation among older adults.
- Depression, loneliness, and reduced social interactions or diminished social relationships can create a sense of fatigue or general malaise, and are surprisingly common among older adults. Left untreated, these problems can easily be interpreted through one of their primary symptoms, a sensation of lack of purpose, lack of motivation, and lack of energy.
- Likewise, emotional problems or concerns, such as excessive stress or worry, uncertainty about the future, health-related anxiety, and so on can all take not just a mental toll, but a physical toll on your body. It’s often said that health begets health, and sickness begets sickness, and this is certainly true in the case of stress, anxiety, and related issues among all ages. Excessive stress predisposes you to an increased risk for a number of physical ailments and health problems, and can do a number on your energy, fitness, motivation, and fatigue levels as well.
- Poor sleep hygiene, an inability to sleep through the night or enter deep sleep, a variable or inconsistent schedule, and discomfort during sleep can all result in poor sleep quality, as well as reduced hours of sleep. Either or both of those factors will naturally mean your body isn’t getting the sleep it needs to reset and feel refreshed, and you’ll develop a sleep debt, feeling tired all the time.
Decreased Energy May Be Health-Related
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:
- Physical pain can often be a limiting factor for physical activity among older adults. It can make it harder to get good quality sleep, harder to exercise, and cause a persistent, background drain on your energy and fatigue levels. Cancer, arthritis, and various immune conditions all have these kinds of symptoms and side effects, as do most older injuries, back pain, muscle pain, and systemic pain-related conditions.
- Chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer are known to have energy-depletion and fatigue as side effects.
- Infections – viral or bacterial – can often sap your energy. Your body needs to recover from a cold, flu, or related illness, and one of the ways in which it does that is make you feel more tired, putting resources into your immune system battle and encouraging you to rest your body.
- Anemia or nutritional deficiencies can result in a sensation of less energy, greater fatigue, and general unease. Untreated, these conditions can be serious, and may cause long-term damage in some cases.
- Many chronic illnesses will naturally change metabolism, energy levels, fitness and activity levels, fatigue, and so on. These include cardiac problems, pulmonary problems, most cancers, diabetes, thyroid and adrenal conditions, kidney problems, and breathing problems like asthma and COPD.
- Sleep apnea (where an individual stops breathing briefly during sleep) is a common health-related reason for decreased energy. This interruption in sleep, even if it does not wake you up, can prevent you from entering the deepest phase of sleep, or causes you to spend less time in that state. As a result, poor quality and quantity of sleep can leave you feeling like your energy reserves are depleted.
Healthy Habits to Maintain Energy and Activity Levels
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:
- Eat a healthy diet, packed with sufficient nutrients and diverse kinds of food
- Exercise at least 20 minutes per day or 150 minutes per week in whatever style or format works the best for you
- Practice mindfulness, yoga, meditation, and similar to help reduce your stress levels
- Seek out mental health treatment for any stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems you may be dealing with
- Ensure you maintain robust and meaningful social relationships and an active social life for emotional fulfillment
- Get good quality sleep for 8 hours a night, and practice good sleep hygiene
- Drink lots of fluids and stay hydrated, as dehydration can present as decreased energy or increased fatigue
- Review medications you may be taking for side effects, and if any of them add to fatigue or decrease energy levels, then talk to your doctor about changing the dosage or medication
- Report any health problems to your doctor, and seek answers – you don’t want your tiredness to be an early warning sign of a more serious condition that goes untreated
- Consider a multivitamin, nutrient supplements, or anti-aging energy booster supplement to augment your diet, exercise, and other healthy habits
Frequently Asked Questions
Do older adults need less sleep than younger adults?
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.
Is low energy or sleepiness a sign of dementia?
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 decline, then it is best to pay a visit to your doctor or healthcare practitioner.
Are afternoon naps healthy?
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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