04 Feb 2022

How to improve sleep

We all know that sleep is important whatever our age. A restful night helps restore our energy levels and heal physical and cognitive damage. But, as we get older, there are several factors that can cause us to have trouble sleeping. This article will explore how sleep patterns change with age, common causes of sleep issues and tips on how to get to sleep.

Mature woman sleeping

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The National Library of Medicine estimates we spend around one-third either sleeping or attempting to do so. But just why is it so important? The NHS advises good quality sleep can have a range of benefits, for example it can:

  • Give you an immunity boost to help fight cold and flu viruses, especially during the winter period
  • Help you to keep weight gain at bay
  • Boost your mental wellbeing
  • Help to prevent diabetes
  • Increase sex drive
  • Help ward off heart disease

Adults aged up to 64 years old should be aiming for 7-9 hours of sleep a night, however 6-10 hours may still be appropriate.

Adults over the age of 65 need around 7-8 hours of sleep, but 5-9 hours is also normal.

But remember, how you feel in the morning is more important than the hours you spend in bed. If you’re frequently waking up feeling tired, you’re probably not getting enough sleep.


As we age, we experience a decrease in deep sleep due to our bodies producing lower growth hormone levels. Because of this, we generate less melatonin, which causes interruptions in our sleeping patterns. That’s why many older people will describe themselves as light sleepers.

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that makes it hard to fall or stay asleep. It can cause you to feel tired when you wake up, sap your energy and mood, and even influence your health, work performance and quality of life.

Many adults experience short-term insomnia, which can last for some days or weeks and is usually a result of stress or a traumatic event. However, some people suffer from long-term, or chronic, insomnia that can last for months.

Common causes of sleep problems in older adults

According to a study by Vita health group, those aged 45-54 struggle the most when it comes to falling asleep, as two thirds report having difficulty at least once a month. The most common causes of insomnia and sleep problems in older adults are:

  • Poor sleeping habits and sleep environment. Irregular sleep hours, consumption of alcohol or caffeine before bedtime and falling asleep with the TV on can affect sleep.
  • Pain or medical conditions. Conditions like an overactive bladder pain, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, night-time heartburn, or Alzheimer’s can interfere with sleep.
  • Menopause and post menopause. During menopause, hot flushes and night sweats can keep us awake.
  • Medications. Sometimes the medication we take can have side effects that cause problems sleeping. Talk to your doctor if you think this could be the cause and they may be able to make some changes for you.
  • Lack of exercise. If we don’t move around much, it could mean we never feel sleepy or that we feel sleepy all the time.
  • Stress. Life changes like retirement, grief, or moving from a family home can cause stress. If this sounds familiar, then talk to your doctor about getting support.
  • Lack of social engagement. Keeping your activity level up by spending time with friends, family and co-workers can be a good way to prepare your body for a good night’s sleep.
  • Lack of sunlight. Exposure to sunlight helps regulate melatonin and your sleep-wake cycles. Try to get at least two hours of sunlight a day, keep the shades open, or try a light therapy box.
  • Other sleep disorders. Things like snoring, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnoea occur more often during sleep in old age, which may leave you staring at the ceiling.

Tips to improve sleep

When you’re tossing and turning, the thought of falling asleep may feel impossible. Try these tips on how to fall asleep:

  • Stick to a schedule. Going to bed when you feel tired and getting up at the same time every morning can help teach your body to sleep better.
  • Avoid naps. It can be tempting to catch 20 minutes on the sofa every now and again but try to avoid naps to increase your chances of sleeping at bedtime.
  • Create a restful environment. Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool as this generally helps make it easier to fall asleep.
  • Exercise during the day. Being active in the day can help you sleep better but remember to avoid vigorous activity near bedtime if it affects your sleep.
  • Can’t sleep? Get up. Don’t try to force yourself to go to sleep, get up and do something relaxing for a while, then return to bed when you feel sleepier.
  • Write down your worries. If you often find yourself lying awake at night worrying, writing down your worries might help. Set aside some time before bed and make a to-do list for the next day, or list what’s bothering you.
  • Put down the pick-me-ups. Try to cut down on caffeine and alcohol before bed as they can stop you nodding off and prevent deep sleep.

Where to find help for sleep problems

If poor sleep is affecting your daily life or causing you distress, call NHS 111 or talk to your GP. There are also many resources out there that can help, here are just a few:

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