Sleep problems in later life

Health, illness and pain

Many people we talked to believed it was important to have a healthy diet and to take some form of exercise. They were also aware of the need for sleep, although the amount needed varied from person to person, and several people believed that less sleep is needed in later life. In particular, several people were actively changing their diets to try and eat more healthily, such as eating more fruit and vegetables, and they ranked sleeping well alongside eating well, in terms of maintaining their health.
Others felt that a healthy diet, physical activity and sleeping well were all important, not just for their health, but also if they wanted to carry on with their daily routines.
A lot of the people we talked to, though, had some serious health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and prostate cancer. Indeed some of the people had several illnesses at the same time and were unsure which had the most impact on their sleep. Sometimes they thought the illness itself caused them sleeping problems, and sometimes they thought it might be the medications they were taking. Mary wonders whether the medicine she takes for her heart might be stopping her from sleeping well (see 'Sleep medication, other medication and over the counter remedies').
 
Many of the people we talked to had some form of arthritis, whether it was osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis and this often caused discomfort and pain in the night. Sometimes people talked of finding it difficult to get to sleep because of the pain, or waking up in the night in pain when they have moved. For some it was difficult to get comfortable in bed. Juliet, who has rheumatoid arthritis, has a special bed so that she can sleep partly upright and to help her get up more easily if she wakes up in the night to go to the toilet.
Other illnesses also brought pain and disturbed sleep and people tried to manage this pain in different ways. Some took over the counter painkillers, others were prescribed stronger painkillers by their doctor, and some tried their own remedies. Anne puts lavender oil drops on a wheat pack, which she then puts in the microwave to heat up before applying to her back before going to bed.
 
Those who suffered from diabetes sometimes found their sleep was affected in different ways. A few were very concerned that they may suffer from a ‘hypo’ (hypoglycaemia), where the sugar level in their blood drops dramatically and they may feel unwell in the night. Another common side effect that people with diabetes reported was having to get up to go to the toilet a lot more frequently in the night. Occasionally it was the partners of those with diabetes whose sleep was disturbed. Robert’s wife, who had diabetes, frequently needed help going to the toilet in the night and he was often ‘on guard’ listening for her movements.
Other health problems that disturbed sleep included cramp, twitching and shooting pains in the legs. Some took over the counter remedies for cramp, others were prescribed quinine tablets, or drank tonic water, which contains quinine. Others didn’t take anything for cramp and just got out of bed and stretch their limbs.
 
One person we spoke to had sleep apnoea which is a condition which causes interruptions in breathing during sleep and often makes people feel very sleepy during the daytime. 
Two of the people we spoke to, who also have heart problems, told us how they often wake up in the night with a sensation of finding it a struggle to breathe. If the problem with their breathing continues, they may find that they then suffer a panic attack and have to get up and try and relax to calm their breathing down. They both believed the cause of their breathing difficulties and subsequent panic attacks were worries or stress, but know that they have to get up and calm their breathing down before they can go back to sleep.
Several people we spoke to had more than one serious health problem and sometimes just worrying about their health kept them awake at night (see 'Worries'). Ron has diabetes, prostate cancer and is awaiting major heart surgery. Worrying about his future surgery wakes him up at about three in the morning and he is then unable to get back to sleep. Otto was very anxious that he hadn't heard when he was due to have his cataract operation and the worry over this made him wake up a lot in the night.
 
Changes that were brought about by prostate problems were mentioned by several of the men we talked to. Some people had prostate surgery for cancer or other problems, whilst others were on some form of medication. All those who had problems with their prostate reported needing to get up more frequently in the night to go to the toilet. Sometimes surgery worked for them and they got up less frequently in the night, but for others surgery made no difference. Otto has had prostate surgery, but believes it made no difference because he still gets up the same number of times in the night.

Last reviewed September 2015.

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