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Improving sleep with age

Sleep patterns change as we get older, which can signal trouble sleeping for over 50s. However, that doesn’t mean a bad night's sleep is inevitable. There are plenty of things to try to help get a good and restful night's sleep.

Sleep problems after 50

The Sleep Council says that after 50, there are sleep changes at night:

  • There are more brief waking-up episodes
  • There is less deep levels of non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep
  • There may be more naps during the day
  • There is less of a change in body temperature during sleep
  • Personal preferences may tend to change to getting up earlier and going to bed earlier.

What causes sleep problems in older people?

Different things may cause sleep problems for different people, but here are some possible causes and tips:

  • Poor sleep habits: Irregular sleep and wake patterns can affect circadian rhythms and make it hard to maintain a regular sleep pattern. Retirement can affect daytime activity, and in turn sleep habits. Try to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. A regular routine is good for your biological clock.
  • Say no to naps: Avoid long naps in the afternoon as these can interfere with sleep at night. If you have to nap, try to limit it to no more than half an hour.
  • Exercise and get outside more: Taking more exercise and being outdoors in natural daylight may help with sleep, such as taking a brisk walk. However, don't exercise too close to bedtime.
  • Cut evening caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant which can wreck sleep, and is found not just in the obvious cup of coffee, but also tea, chocolates and colas. Consider having a warm milk drink instead.
  • Drink less in the evening: Taking more liquids on board in the evening increases the chance of needing a trip to the toilet at night. Limiting fluids a few hours before bedtime may help. Alcohol can also have a mixed effect. While it may help a person relax and get to sleep, it can disturb sleep later in the night.
  • Don't overeat or starve: Eating meals and snacks that are too much or too little can affect sleep, causing discomfort from feeling too full or too hungry.
  • Bedroom bliss: Make sure the bedroom is a good environment for sleep. This usually means making sure it is dark and cool enough and the mattress is comfortable and supportive.
  • Medications: Some medications may interfere with sleep. Seek medical advice if you think a treatment is disturbing sleep.
  • Psychological distress or mental health disorders: Some people worry more as they get older, often after life changes such as the death of a loved one, moving from a family home, or physical limitations due to illness. Try to worry less and relax. More worry can mean less sleep.
  • Sleep disorders: Get help for any sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, and REM behaviour disorder.


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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on February 27, 2017

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