Sleep problems in later life

Making sense of poor sleep

Many people we spoke to were aware that their sleep had changed, and in particular had worsened over the years, and whilst some took these changes in their stride, others tried to make sense of why they were sleeping less well.
Most people had an idea of what their perfect night’s sleep would be but this often differed considerably to how they actually slept. This difference was explained in three ways. Some people thought that the change in their sleep pattern was purely caused by getting older, and difficulty sleeping was associated with old age. Others had read or heard about what a perfect night’s sleep should be and they compared their own sleep to this ‘ideal’ image. And some people believed their sleep should be scheduled between certain times of the night and they now felt that their sleep failed to fit within those times.
People often told us they had read or heard somewhere about what is the right amount of sleep, the best way to sleep, or things to avoid to help with sleep, but they weren’t always sure where they had got that information from.

Peter, who had been a long distance runner for many years, read several articles about sleep in his running magazine where it was recommended that plenty of sleep was needed before and after a race. Occasionally people told us their doctor’s had given them advice about sleep. John’s doctor told him that he should expect to sleep less as he got older, and so not to be worried about it.
Several people cited Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill when they talked about their poor sleep, telling us that they were well known for not sleeping very much. A few people recalled that Margaret Thatcher only needed about 2-4 hours' sleep a night and therefore assumed that now they are older, about 4 hours a night would be sufficient for them too. Anne thought it would be wonderful to be like Margaret Thatcher because that meant she would have many more hours in the day to do everything she has to get done. Some people mentioned Winston Churchill’s habit of sleeping only a few hours during the night, but taking naps during the day, and decided that if it is was all right for Winston Churchill it should be all right for them. There was a general sense among some of the people we talked to that if well-known people were not sleeping much or taking naps during the day then that could apply to them as well. In reality there is no set number of hours of sleep that is ideal as individuals vary in the amount of sleep they need, and different age groups need different amounts of sleep.
People varied about whether they talked about sleep with friends or family, from those who told us it was a frequent topic of conversation to those who never discussed it. Those who didn’t talk about their sleep said this was largely because they weren’t bothered by the fact their sleep wasn’t particularly good and had accepted it as a part of getting older. When people first spoke to friends or older relatives about their lack of sleep, they realised that it was a common problem.

Last reviewed October 2018.


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