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Why Do Older People Sleep Less – Sleep Disorders

Why do Older People Sleep Less?

Many older people struggle to sleep well at night. Experts say that ageing does change our sleeping patterns. For example, older people often go to bed earlier and have a lighter sleep than when they were younger. Going to bed earlier is due to the hormones that help us to get to sleep. As we age they’re released earlier on in the day. Having a lighter sleep’s often the result of a reduction in levels of Melatonin. This is a hormone that helps us to sleep.

Irrespective of hormonal changes that impact on sleep, it’s also common for ageing people to develop health complications and co-morbidities that impact on sleep. when your older relatives say they aren’t sleeping well, you’ll want to help them to get to the root cause of the sleep disturbances.

My elderly friend only sleeps for about 6 hours a day, and her sleep’s broken with regular trips to the toilet, and general restlessness. She’s not alone. I know that it’s her urge incontinence that mostly keeps her awake. Many of her friends tell me that they struggle to enter into a deep sleep too for many different reasons.

Where you live can effect your sleep habits too. Some aged care facilities will have a time each day that they settle residents into their rooms and turn out the lights. If you live in an aged care facility and your sleep’s impacted by this, raise the issue with the aged care homes facility manager and talk about it with your family. Sleep is so important to your health and wellbeing.

Health Check-up

You might wonder what the common causes are for sleep disruption. Well, it’s possible that there’s a   significant health related cause that’s impacting on your sleep. Getting a check-up with your G.P. would be the first point of call. Consider if you’ve any of the following symptoms and if so, raise these concerns with your doctor:

  • Reflux or heartburn
  • Difficulty breathing at night
  • Sleep Apnoea
  • Uncontrollable physical pain
  • Urinary incontinence or urgency
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Changes to your cognition
  • Regular medications that’re keeping you awake

Receiving a diagnosis and a treatment plan for underlying conditions such as pain, is the first step in achieving consistent sleep. Talk with your G.P. about your concerns and also consider getting a review of your medications from your pharmacist.

Let’s now look at some of the main causes of sleep disruption in older people.

Sleep-related Breathing Disorders

Sleep-related breathing disorders is a term that covers a spectrum of problems related to how people breathe when they sleep. Sleep Apnoea is a common sleep-related breathing disorder. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, 1 in 4 older people have sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea occurs when people have pauses in their breathing throughout sleep, and their upper airways get momentarily obstructed. As a result of this, blood oxygen levels reduce, and sleep’s disrupted. Many people suffering from sleep apnoea are unaware of it.

If you would like further information regarding sleep related breathing disorders, The Sleep Health Foundation offers a range of resources and fact sheets. They say that older people really need about as much sleep as younger people, although this isn’t always the case. So if you think that you might have sleep apnoea, consult with your G.P. and consider treatment options (e.g. CPAP machine). They may also refer you to a sleep clinic for further diagnosis.

Restless Legs

This is an important one! Sleeping less due to restless legs syndrome? Restless legs syndrome occurs when you feel discomfort in your limbs. It can affect people when they lie down or try to go to sleep, and often worsens in the evenings. Having restless legs can significantly impact on sleep and it can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety too.

Although it’s not super common, age is a risk factor for developing it. Rest assured though, that there are treatments for restless legs. Get in contact with your G.P. to talk about your restless legs. There are ways to treat it, but first, any underlying health problems that can cause restless legs need addressing. Arthritis, diabetes, Parkinson’s and renal disease can all be a cause of restless legs syndrome.


Do you regularly find it difficult to fall asleep? If so, you might be suffering from insomnia. It’s more common than you might think, with most people experiencing it at some point during their lives. There are many causes of insomnia such as loss of a love one, pain, anxiety, drug use, depression and stress.

The good news is that insomnia is treatable, and you don’t necessarily need to resort to taking sleeping tablets as a form of treatment. The side effects can be harmful to your health.

Consider seeking help from your G.P or even a sleep specialist, and look at making some lifestyle changes considered in the following suggestions:

Diet and Exercise

Those dreaded words “Diet” and “Exercise!” But they really do help us to sleep. If you’re overweight you’re definitely at increased risk of developing sleep disorders that impact on a good night sleep.

Make sure that you’re not hungry at night, but also make sure that you’re not too full as this might give you heartburn/ reflux, and effect your sleep. Let your evening meal settle before you go to bed.

Furthermore if you maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly, you’ll tend to feel more tired at night.


Implementing a regular routine with sleep could help in overcoming sleep disturbances. And consider reducing daytime and evening naps if they’re impacting on your overnight sleep routine.

If you maintain good sleep habits, your sleep will likely improve. It’s a matter of trial and error and finding which routine works for you.

What Else Can You Do?

If all else fails, think about keeping a journal of your sleep patterns, and factors affecting your sleep. That way, your documentary evidence is available when you seek medical treatment. Consult with your G.P. or sleep specialist, and remember, older adults need sleep too.

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