Sleep problems in later life


Worries affected people’s sleep in many different ways. Some people found worrying stopped them getting to sleep because they couldn’t get their worries out of their minds. Others told us that when they woke up in the night, perhaps to go to the toilet, then their problems ‘crowded’ into their heads and they couldn’t get back to sleep. Occasionally worries stopped people from sleeping deeply and so they woke up often in the night. Others said that if they had something to worry about then they would wake up early in the morning and then wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.

Sue B. finds that if she has a problem that is worrying her, she will wake up earlier than usual,...

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
If I am extremely tired and sometimes, I mean the other night I think it was Sunday night I was watching a lovely programme with David Attenborough, I think that was from 9 to 10 and I was very, very tired and I was dropping off in that programme. And I think I didn’t hear the end of it. you know, so that night obviously I went out like a light.
Straight to bed and then straight to sleep?
But basically I am not tossing and turning in the middle of the night and not waking up at 2 o’clock in the morning and on the whole, if I have got a real worry then I find I probably will go to sleep, but I will wake up very early in the morning. Probably about 5 or something.
Right and then you don’t go back to sleep?
No, on the whole. But a normal night at the moment has been fairly regular waking up at about 7 on the whole, perhaps half past 7 and there was a period a few months back when I was sleeping in quite late perhaps even quarter to 8.
Well it works really well for me. I can get up in the morning. I have my energy. I go for a walk before breakfast for a quarter of an hour and I am alive and on the whole, not feeling, you know, the day is difficult because I haven’t had enough sleep. So it suits me really well.
So if you don’t have that sleep you feel the day is difficult?
Well waking up at 5 I find is hard.
How often does that happen?
Not very often. It is only if I am worrying about something.
So the worries wake you up in the morning?
They seem to wake me up more, obviously I don’t get to sleep so well at night but I do find I wake up really early in the morning if I have got something that is really troubling me on my mind. 

Anne can sometimes lay awake worrying until two or three in the morning.

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Age at interview: 71
Sex: Female
I go to bed fairly early, half past ten. And I read for half an hour to an hour. Sometimes I go to sleep at half past eleven and wake up about two.  Sometimes I won’t go to sleep at all until about half past two, three. So it's varied, but there doesn’t seem to be any pattern why it’s varied.
Okay and then how long would you sleep for in the morning?
If I’ve had a fairly good night’s sleep that is, you know, I can go back to bed again, I’ll get up at half past seven, but sometimes if I’ve had a really bad night my husband let’s me sleep in and I sleep in to about ten.
Okay so you’re kind of catching up on sleep?
Try to catch up yes.
So you go to bed at half past ten you say?
Half past ten.
And then sometimes, sorry, what was the half past eleven?
That’s reading, reading, reading!
Do you read every night?
Pretty well yes.
So you read for an hour in bed?
Then turn out the light and then…?
Hopefully go to sleep.
And how often do you not?
I would say two, three times a week, not.
Okay so you’re just laying there?
Worrying usually. Yes.
Till two or three in the morning?
Yes can be.
Gosh that must be…?
It’s quite wearing yes. And I get very, very bad tempered.
One or two people found it was much better to deal with any problems during the day, so that they didn’t take them to bed with them, and their sleep wouldn’t be disturbed. Several of the people we talked to were worrying about all sorts of issues in the night, only to wake in the morning and realise that the problems weren’t as significant as they thought they were. They even went as far as getting up to try and solve their problems in the night, or writing down the things that were worrying them, but were aware in the morning that they were probably worrying over nothing.

Mike often lies awake worrying in the night, but in the morning realises his problems aren’t that...

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Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
So the usual question is I ask people about how your sleep has changed since you’ve been retired, won't apply to you, but it doesn’t sound like…?
I don’t think it’s changed much. I think I get tireder now. Physically tireder now and I sometimes feel that, probably as I intimated earlier the actual way I sleep seems to, I seem to go into deeper periods of sleep now. But I don’t necessarily sleep any longer over all.
So okay, when did you notice that started?
I think I only noticed it in the last year or so, but I don’t know whether it’s a reality or just an impression. I’ve always been a little bit of a night time worrier. We all know it don’t we. If you’re not a desperately deep sleeper, you do, you do anything that’s a problem, you are lying there at night and it comes into your mind doesn’t it. And I mean I think a lot of the times, perhaps if I am lying there for an hour or two, it is mulling around things that have gone wrong or potentially are going to go wrong and then in the morning you think about it, and you think, oh so what!
What was all that about?!
What was all that about exactly yes!

Mary worries about her family in the night, but is aware in the morning that this was probably a...

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Age at interview: 72
Sex: Female
No the thing that keeps me from sleeping is the worry of people. If one of the grandchildren are not well then I know and I lay up there for ages, and you know, I like to get up and take them to doctor there and then to …
To stop the worry about it?
So I do worry about people.
So if I said to you what is the one most significant thing that affects your sleep?
If I do have something to worry about.
And is that recently or has that always been the case?
No I’ve always worried. It is one of my downfalls.
So it something that you think might be keeping you awake at night?
It’s the thing that’s most likely to keep me awake. Yes. Is worrying.
And do you do anything if you know that is what is doing it, keeping you awake, is there anything you do?
Well you try talking to yourself and saying if you worry all night it is not going to change it and then the next morning they get up and go to school and you think why did I.  
Some people have always been what they would class as ‘worriers’ and their sleep would often be disturbed by laying awake and worrying. Over the years work worries, health concerns, and concerns about children and other family members had kept them awake in the night. People talked about how, when they had young children, they would worry about them waking up in the night. When their children grew into teenagers and were out late at night, they would lay awake worrying about their whereabouts and whether they were going to come home safely. This could cause a disturbed sleeping pattern that continued as people got older.

When her teenage son was out at night, Anne used to lay awake until she heard him come home.

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Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
Yes. So what about teenagers? How were they then? Did they keep you awake at night?
Teenagers. I remember not being able to sleep until my son was home at the kind of vulnerable teenage stage. The worst year was the year we bought this house because he was 18 I think then, and obviously totally independent. And he only was here for a year. Is that right? Anyway I might have lost a bit of time somewhere there, and I used to worry until I heard him come in at night. I had no real reason to worry about him but he was in a car and I would just think 'oh what could have happened to him' and so as soon as I heard the car door or something I would be able to go to sleep. But I’m sure that’s normal.
A number of people said that concerns about their health had quite a significant impact on their sleep, particularly if they were already what they classed as a ‘worrier’.  Several of the people we spoke to had health problems, and they often worried about whether they would get better or worse, about forthcoming treatment, and about how their partners would manage without them.

Les often wakes in the night worrying about his many health problems, and how his wife will...

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Age at interview: 80
Sex: Male
You were saying you worry, panic?
Yes, I do.
I think you mentioned that on your questionnaire?
I probably did because it’s a fact I do worry over everything. We have got a lovely GP. He’s very honest, very forthright, tells you exactly what is wrong, he doesn’t beat around the bush. He tells you and I would rather have it that way, but, when he does tell me I then think, God what else can go wrong, you know. I was having a pretty bad spell a few months ago and I got whipped into hospital. They had to come on Saturday night and taken me off in an ambulance and they diagnosed me as being okay. But a week later I felt rough again, so this time I went to see and he had tests done and he says I have got myocardial heart failure or something which you know, it is not pleasant, but it’s not life threatening.
So has he given you any medicine for it?
Nine tablets a day.
Goodness, but is that controlling it?
Yes. I hope so anyway. Yes. So it’s just those three factors, the carpal tunnel thing, which does keep you awake, you can’t help it. The overactive mind and being a worrier. And really and truly that about sums it up doesn’t it.
How many times would you say you wake up in the night?
It’s a minimum of four times. A minimum. It’s been a lot more than that on occasions. A lot more than that.
So last night when you said you had a really bad night?
Oh that was a bad night. I literally didn’t sleep at all.
I was asleep very quickly. I am always first in, you follow me in don’t you? And I get to sleep very, very quickly. Once I know she’s settled and that it’s okay. But, it was about between half eleven, somewhere round about half eleven, up I came and that was it, and I literally didn’t sleep for the rest of the night until half past five this morning. I slept for an hour and thought oh that’s a waste of time. I’ll get up. 
Some people found they had more to worry about now they were retired. Roy told us that since he retired he was worrying about family members and business concerns, which often woke him in the night. Peter found that if he was sleeping badly because of a worry, this would also disturb his wife, and they may end up talking about their problems in the night.
Sometimes the main worry in the night was the worry of not being able to sleep. People were worried about not getting enough sleep, particularly if they had things they had to do the next day. Some people said the more they worry about not sleeping the more awake they become.
Very often, when people were worrying in the night, they found themselves going over and over things in their heads, and sometimes the thoughts could turn into bad dreams or even nightmares.

Anne finds that her problems seem much greater in the night, and they sometimes develop into...

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Age at interview: 71
Sex: Female
In post retirement have you had other times in your sleep that’s been…?
Well for different reasons yes. I find at night that any worries you’ve got are multiplied and it all seems much worse. At one stage I actually would write down solutions, but I found that made it worse as well. So I don’t do that now.
Why did it make it worse?
I don’t know. It was sort of reminding me during the day what I was thinking about I think.
Ah so…
So I stopped doing that. I was trying to be scientific and put it all down… I read somewhere that if you write down what you’re dreaming about you can solve it the next morning, but it doesn’t work.
It didn’t work?
It didn’t work at all.
It made you more focused on it?
Were these dreams that were keeping you awake or was it just thoughts?
Thoughts mostly, thoughts. And then sometimes it would turn into nightmares, but, and when I have nightmares I’m quite active then, I sort of throw myself around a bit. So, and that upsets my husband.
So you’re a nightmare thrasher rather than somebody who just lays there?
Yes. That’s when I’m asleep and I have a nightmare. But when I’m worrying I lie there. Oh dear. It sounds dreadful. 
Not everyone we talked to was kept awake at night through worrying. A few people never, or at least very rarely, were awake in the night because of worries. Ronald was a great believer in sorting out his problems to the best of his ability during the day and was never woken by worries. Carol never lets worries keep her awake at night, even when she has lots of problems, and wonders whether that is normal. Others said they were never really great worriers, and weren’t disturbed very often by problems that might arise.

Christopher occasionally used to worry about his work in the night, but is more relaxed now he is...

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Age at interview: 68
Sex: Male
Yes. I have always been quite lucky in life I think. I have never been a miserable or morose person.
Do you think that has an influence then on…?
On my sleep.
Yes, or a perspective on life?
I don’t know what it is. Probably, I’m not a person that, I don’t really have much of a conscience.
But your attitude?
I don’t worry at night about what I’ve done very often. I did when I was younger I think at work but I think you get possibly either more confident or more blasé as you get older.
So that’s interesting. So when you were younger you used to worry about work?
I guess you are more ambitious when you are younger as well. And you get more sanguine towards the end. Although I worked in the same job for a long time. It sounds really boring but I loved it, and I never really drove myself once I got this job to anything else. I guess I just sat around and enjoyed my life. I have had a good life I must admit. Not particularly affluent, but comfortable and I guess I’m quite a, you know, satisfied person.
So that might link into it, if you had periods when you were worried about your job and those were periods when you slept less well?
Yes, but it’s very marginal Sue to be honest. I am not a great worrier in general terms. I am not a moaner. If I have got something to worry about it does keep me awake actually but then I don’t worry about it that long.
Because equally you said to me it’s not so much worries that are keeping you awake but the things that might keep awake are things that you might have to do rather than things you worry about?
Things I have forgotten like, generally, yes.

Last reviewed October 2018.

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