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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.
 

Audrey finds that all aspects of her sleep have changed as she has got older, but for her the...

Audrey finds that all aspects of her sleep have changed as she has got older, but for her the...

Age at interview: 79
Sex: Female
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Taking less time to go to sleep. Sometimes it takes ages and ages before I can get off to sleep.
 
Is that the part of your sleep that bothers you the most?
 
I’m just trying to think. It all bothers me, because I would love to, I feel it would be so good if I could go to bed, sleep and wake up at the normal time, that would be absolutely wonderful, but I haven’t done that for years. I used to be all right. I suppose with old age. I don’t know. But I think going to SMILES has helped.
 
Oh it has. Do you mind telling me for the Camera what SMILE is?
 
SMILE means so much improvement for little effort, and it’s specifically designed for older people. And they are very gentle exercises and the main advantage or the main thing about them is that you breathe properly and breathing is the root of all ailments. Well not all but a lot of illness and things like that and if you breathe properly I suppose it's getting more oxygen around your system, and that I think is one of the main things and also for posture and things like that.
 

Carol has noticed she wakes up more in the night now she is older, and sometimes gets up to have...

Carol has noticed she wakes up more in the night now she is older, and sometimes gets up to have...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Female
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It varies it is so different. I am obviously beginning to realise a lot of it is down to me, my fault, if I have something to drink. Coffee and so on shortly before I go to bed which is naughty but I do it. Then I suppose that is probably going to make me go to sleep, taking longer to get to sleep. There are very occasional days, nights, I should say, when I wake up and I can’t get to sleep again. So I have done what I have heard other people do when they get older, because I know that you don’t sleep as well when you get older. I heard that other people simply give in, go downstairs and get a cup of tea and maybe a piece of toast and then go back to bed. I don’t feel that terrible about it because I am retired. So if it was work the next morning I would be shattered, but I don’t think I did it then. It didn’t happen then.
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').
 

Ronald has found that as he has got older he goes to the toilet a lot more in the night.

Ronald has found that as he has got older he goes to the toilet a lot more in the night.

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Male
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And you say you wake up to go the loo though a couple of times in the night now?
 
Hm.
 
How long has that been going on?
 
Well it is probably more now than…
 
You have noticed an increase?
 
Yes. I mean I think as you get older, either your bladder gets weaker or if you look, like I am taking at the moment more fluids because of this problem with gout, they reckon then you drink six pints of water a day.
 
That’s a lot.
 
Yes, it is.
 
It is more than the normal amount isn’t it?
 
Oh yes, by far, by far. But I mean it is something that they advise you to do, so I try to do that but of course it reflects against your sleep pattern a bit.
 
Yes, so you find you get up, how many times did you say?
 
About twice perhaps three times.
 
And you think it is your bladder waking up and you say oh it’s time to go the loo now?
 
Partly, yes, partly. Another thing it is just the age that I am, I think.
 

Jim’s doctor has told him that the reason he now gets up a lot more in the night to go to the...

Jim’s doctor has told him that the reason he now gets up a lot more in the night to go to the...

Age at interview: 78
Sex: Male
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So when you get up in the night, is that the main reason you get up for is to go and get something to eat and drink and that settles you down?
 
Well mainly I get up to go to the toilet actually.
 
That is normal.
 
That has got worse. Yes. I am getting up three times a night.
 
Right.
 
To go to the toilet. So I go to bed ten or eleven. I go before I go to bed, get up about one, half past one, three o’clock, six o’clock. It is worse than the actual hypo thing. You know.
 
So that happens as well every night?
 
Practically yes.
 
And how long has that been going on?
 
Well that has been going on about a couple of years. Yes. It has gradually got worse. I mentioned it to the doctor and they said, it is age, you can’t do nothing about it. It just comes and goes.
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').
 

Mike doesn’t like the idea of having to take a nap during the day because he believes that would...

Mike doesn’t like the idea of having to take a nap during the day because he believes that would...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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How do you feel about the whole sleeping during the day thing?
 
I’m not very keen on it. A couple of, I suppose it must reflect the fact that on particular occasions I have been particularly tired. I can remember a couple of times when I’ve been watching something I was interested in, that I’ve woken up and thought oh hell I’ve missed that now. And I find that really aggravating. But, no, I rather hope I don’t get round to that.
 
Why is that?
 
Well I just think you’re doing other things really.
 
Okay so it’s not something you would want to do?
 
I wouldn’t want to do it now.
 
Have you got any family or friends who do that…?
 
Well my Mum’s getting, well she’s coming up for 91 now and she’s got arthritic problems, but no she wouldn’t tend to lay down, unless she was, she does have obviously with the pain, she does have quite broken nights. No she’s not a day time sleeper. I mean and the reason I’m hesitating a little bit is I imagine there are occasions when perhaps she does, but it’s not a habit or anything of hers and certainly my Dad wouldn’t have done.
 
He wouldn’t have done?
 
No he wouldn’t have done. He was probably quite similar to me. Probably slightly more physical, activity I would imagine. But he doesn’t strike me as the sort of person that would have said oh I’m going to go and have a nap now. So think probably the answer to that is no, it’s not a family, it’s not something that’s in our family.
 
Do you think there’ll ever come a time when you might…?
 
Well I hope not. I hope not. Because I think it would reflect on the fact that I was really getting past it. But I suppose it could, yes it could come to it. I just feel that once you’re up and about and in day time mode, to then go and lay down for an hour or so, and then you’re like starting again aren’t you, and going through the whole of that morning routine thing, where you wake up, and you have a wash and a shower and whatever you’re going to do and now you’re awake and you feel a bit better because you’ve had your shower and everything, I think perhaps if you went back and had a lay down again, then you’re almost turning the clock back five or six hours. I’m probably conscious of the fact I’m probably not explaining that very well, but I think you are picking that …
 

Ronald sees falling asleep in the evening in front of the television as natural, but would be...

Ronald sees falling asleep in the evening in front of the television as natural, but would be...

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Male
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Okay you talked a bit about falling asleep in front of the telly in the evening, and you said that is absolutely fine, you don’t think there is an issue with that?
 
Oh no, no, I just take it as a natural thing as you get older.
 
Would you feel the same if you actually had to fall asleep during the day. Would you feel the same way about…?
 
Probably not… probably not.
 
Why is that, do you know?
 
Well because I like to do things during the day time.
 
So what would you feel if you had to keep falling asleep during the day?
 
Well I think I would go to the doctors. I don’t think it would be in my sort of character or make up.
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.
 

Ronald retired early because of health problems, and noticed a change in his sleep then because...

Ronald retired early because of health problems, and noticed a change in his sleep then because...

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Male
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Well I suppose soon after I retired. Perhaps I took early retirement, as I say I was about 53. And then, yes, that’s it the back problem. Probably a change then, I mean from the routine of going to work in the end from sort of 8 o’clock to five o’clock, it seemed to just generally make my sleep pattern change a bit.
 
Oh so you think there was probably a change from… because you had that routine?
 
Yes, that is right. I think that is something to do with it.
 
That is interesting. Yes. So your day changed because you didn’t have this I have to get up to go to work kind of thing?
 
Hm.
 
So then your sleep pattern changed at that time?
 
Seemed to change yes.
 
Well that is interesting.
 
Either associated with that and plus the age and then plus this health problem with…
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.
 

Jacqui, who does shift work, notices that she finds it harder to recover from a shift now she is...

Jacqui, who does shift work, notices that she finds it harder to recover from a shift now she is...

Age at interview: 69
Sex: Female
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Do you find then the next day. How do you feel when you get up to the day shift?
 
I’m shattered and by the time the shift finishes at half past two ready to come home and normally I would sit on the couch and just sleep. Sometimes I’ll even climb into bed and just have a couple of hours sleep.
 
So how long do you think that messes you up for?
 
You know, about three days. It sounds a lot. Because of my age. I definitely think it’s because of my age.
 
Do you think when you were younger you would have recovered sooner?
 
Yes, recover much sooner.
 
Is that something you talk about amongst yourselves?
 
We do talk about it. But I have just decided it’s because of my age, it takes me that much longer to recover from it.
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.
 

Peter feels his sleep will gradually change as he got older, but thinks that’s a normal part of...

Peter feels his sleep will gradually change as he got older, but thinks that’s a normal part of...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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How do you feel about the whole daytime sleep? If you, you know, if you did more of it how would you feel about that?
 
That it was something of my age I should think. I should think in future in might become more of the norm from what I have seen of older people.
 
So you are expecting there to be some change perhaps in sleep?
 
Yes. I don’t expect it to be a step change. I expect it to be a gradual sort of gradual…
 
So if your sleep changed to the point where you were sleeping more during the day would that worry you at all?
 
No. I would just think that was pretty normal.
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.
 

John was told by his doctor to expect his sleep to worsen as he got older, but not to worry...

John was told by his doctor to expect his sleep to worsen as he got older, but not to worry...

Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
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Well the doctor, it didn’t seem to bother him. That I was having say six hours. He said your body will tell you whatever it needs. If you are in reasonable health, unless there is something very, very dark happening in your life, which you have chosen not to tell me about. I said no. No. He said you haven’t got any serious problem have you. No I said my life is coming along all right. He said well there is no serious illness with you. Your brain function is okay. Your aptitude tests, when you have done them, you say have been good. Physically in reasonable health. You are not too over weight. You know, you are the sort of patient that I expect to see at the age late sixties, and the expectation is that you will live into your eighties. So don’t worry about the sleep. Only come and see me if it really starts to impede on your physical well being. If it really drags you down. And you become psychotic about it, you will then need to come and see me. But he said yes, ideally you should get a bit more sleep, but just let it happen. You know, you really don’t need me to give you stuff to shove in your system. I don't want to do that.
 
 
And he said I don’t want to chemically send you to sleep. I don’t think that's a good idea, that is the last resort. He said you can become over dependent and that isn’t a good a thing, he said. You will find you need less sleep as you get older.
 
The doctor said that?
 
Yes. He said ‘in your sixties, and when you get into seventies you find you will be able to cope, providing you sit back and accept it’. He said ‘but don’t get too concerned. If you have night after night without proper sleep that is one thing. If you have the occasional bad [night] don’t be concerned. The body will look after your sleep needs’.
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 October 2018.

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