Sleep problems in later life

Earlier times of poor sleep and their impact on sleep now

Whilst many older people talked of how poor their sleep is now, and often thought it was down to the fact that they were getting older, several of the older people we talked to also described how their sleep had been poor at other times in their lives, and still had an influence on their sleep now. They identified several factors that may have changed their sleep patterns, such as bereavement, stress from work and health problems.
One very common reason for having poor sleep now was having spent some time caring for or the death of someone close to them. People talked about how they found their sleep had deteriorated once their partner had died, and remained poor, even though it may have been several years since the death of their partner. Others found that both the physical caring and worrying for someone close to them who is terminally ill was very disruptive in terms of sleep. Judy looked after her brother for two years before he went to live in a home but her sleep still remained poor because she felt guilty and worried about him.
Sometimes older people realised their poor sleep was influenced by events earlier in their life. One person knew she wasn’t sleeping well because of needing to get up and go to the toilet, and put this down to old age, but then realised that there had been other times in her life when she didn’t sleep well.
People weren’t always clear about what caused the change in their sleep, but were aware of a general decline in sleep quality over several years. Christopher said that because he had worked shifts he had “never had a regular pattern of sleep all my life”. A few women thought that one of the possible reasons for their poor sleep was the onset of the menopause, and the symptoms that are associated with it. Other women mentioned that disturbance in their sleep had started when their children were young and it had never been the same since. A few people had worked in shifts in the past which they thought might have had an influence.
Many of the older people we talked to reflected on how their sleep had changed as they got older and they expected to sleep less and to have to get up in the night. However, some also talked about how worries and concerns affected their sleep. Some of these were more recent worries, but several older people also talked about how worries in earlier life were still affecting how they sleep. This varied from worries about family and work, to health and financial issues. Some older people often woke up in the night thinking about past events that had been distressing and how they might have handled things differently, whilst others felt that the stress and worry of jobs they'd had before retirement continued to affect their sleep. If worries about work had caused them to toss and turn, this is a habit which continued, even some years after retirement.
For many others though, health problems that had started in earlier life were an additional reason for poor sleep in later life. Significant health issues, such as heart problems, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and prostate problems can disturb sleep at the time they are diagnosed, and can continue to disturb sleep after diagnosis. But some people who experienced a disturbance to their sleep at the time of diagnosis and treatment of a health problem, also found that this disturbance continued, even when the health problem has been resolved. Sometimes the legacy of an injury causes problems in terms of sleep, even years after the injury.

Last reviewed October 2018.


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