Sleep problems in later life

Age, ageing and changes in sleep

Many of the people we spoke to told us how their sleep has changed as they got older. Most people expected this would happen because they had heard about it from others, read about somewhere, or their doctor told them it would change. This wasn’t always the case though. Val hadn’t expected her sleep to change and wasn’t really sure why it had got worse, but she thought it must be due to getting older. In general, people found that their sleep had changed in several ways from when they were younger. It was common for people to say that it takes longer for them to get to sleep, they wake up a lot in the night, and are awake earlier in the morning. They also said that because their sleep is quite disturbed, they often fell into a deeper sleep at around the time they were due to get up, which meant they felt very drowsy on awakening.
One of the main changes in sleep that people experience as they get older is that they have to get up in the night to go to the toilet a lot more. Whereas they used to be able to go all night without having to get up, now they are getting up sometimes two or three times a night. Some people talked about trying not to drink after a certain time at night, or drinking less, to try and stop needing to go to the toilet during the night, but find this usually doesn’t make any difference (see 'Going to the toilet at night').
Another change people have noticed in their sleep as they have got older is that they tend to fall asleep more during the day. Some were annoyed that this happens, usually because they have lots of things they wished to do during the day, but others were more accepting of it and saw it as part of getting older (see 'Daytime sleep').
Some people told us that they noticed their sleep had changed when they retired, usually because of a change to their routines as a result of not having to get up at a set time in the morning, but also believed age played a part in causing them poorer sleep.
However, not everyone we spoke to had retired, although most were working part time. Jacqui said that working shifts is much harder now she is older, and she gets very tired after work.
Some of the people we spoke to told us how their sleep had started to get worse, and that they expected it to continue to worsen as they got older, but that this is a perfectly normal part of getting older. Fewer people believed their sleep wouldn’t get any worse than it is now, but did comment that other circumstances or events, such as illness or bereavement, might have an effect on their sleep.
Advice given by doctors to some of the people we spoke to was largely not to worry about having less sleep, or disturbed sleep, as long as it didn’t get too bad. They were told to expect changes to sleep in later life and that it was perfectly normal, along with other changes that occur such as increasing health problems. John’s doctor explained that it was important to listen to what your body is telling you to do and accept it.
Not everyone was concerned about the changes to sleep that accompany getting older. Some people accepted it as inevitable and didn’t believe in worrying about it. Many people we talked to were proud about getting older, and particularly pleased if they were able to continue being active in later life. Finding ways to get enough sleep to keep active was important so that they could continue to do the things they wanted to do.

Last reviewed September 2015.

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