Getting a Good Night's Sleep After 50


Posted on: 08 April 2013 by Helena Pi

Did you know that sleep problems don't necessarily increase with age? Read on to learn more about how you can sleep better after age 50.

It might sound like mission impossible, but far from it - it is indeed possible to get a quality snooze even as we get older.

It has long been assumed that old age results in an increase in complaints of problems falling asleep or staying asleep through the night [1], however the newest sleep research indicates otherwise. A 2012 study [2], which analysed the sleep patterns of over 16,000 people, failed to  find an increase in sleep disturbance with age. Quite the opposite, it was in fact, younger adults who complained most about issues with sleeping.

The results of the Great British Sleep Survey help to explain this finding - people over 50 really do seem to cope better with poor sleep than those in their youth. The over 50s were found to be more than 50% less likely to feel helpless, worried or alone as a result of their poor sleep than the survey’s average respondent.

If you’re over 50 and are suffering sleep problems, we know of a few more research findings that you might find helpful.

It’s more than likely that you have been advised to steer clear of caffeinated drinks in the hours before bed many times, however research suggests this may become increasingly important as you age. It is, in fact possible that at age 50 you can’t metabolize caffeine quite as quickly as you were able to at 30[3]. For this reason, caffeine may stick around in your system for longer, delaying its effects and sparking up new sleep issues. Indeed, caffeine which may be ‘hidden’ in things such as medication can be a source of sleep problems for the elderly, particularly as it doubles the likelihood of having trouble falling asleep.[4]

Another routine thing which can improve sleep is exercise. Research has shown exercise to help poor sleepers of all ages [5], but particularly postmenopausal women who, in a recent study, saw significant improvements in the quality of their sleep [6]. Throughout years of research, exercise has been shown to help decrease the time spent trying to fall asleep, lengthen the total time spent asleep [7] and improve how the person feels the next day [5]. All of which undoubtedly contribute toward a better quality of life [5] for older people.

Lastly, to complete the good sleep trifecta, is a morning walk outside. The elderly may have less of the hormone melatonin [8], which promotes sleep.  Exposure to morning light helps oil up your body clock, meaning that when you get in bed in the evening you have a better chance of falling asleep without struggle and sleeping soundly. Not to mention that this walk counts as exercise too![5]

Exposure to natural light in the morning has been shown to help improve the quality of sleep in elderly people with dementia, especially by helping them sleep for longer [9]. For those unable to get outside for some natural light, one study found that institutionalised elderly people also benefitted from bright light therapy in the mornings between 8 and 11 am [10].

Either way, there may be less cause to fret about losing sleep as we age but, if you do wish to seek help to improve your sleep, you can turn to clinically proven treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia.

[1]Ancoli-Israel, S., Ayalon, L., Salzman, C. (2008). Sleep in the elderly: normal variations and common sleep disorders. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 16(5), 279-286.

[2]Grandner, M.A. et al. (2012). Age and sleep disturbances among American men and women: data from the U.S. behvaioral risk factor surveillance system. Sleep, 35(3), 395-406.

[3]Ellis,J., Hampson, S.E., Cropley, M. (2002). Sleep hygiene or compensatory sleep practices: an examination of behaviours affecting sleep in older adults. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 7(2), 156-161

[4]Brown, S.L., Salive, M.E., Pahor, M., Foley, D.J., Corti, M.C., Langlois, J.A., Wallace, R.B., Harris, T.B. (1995). Occult caffeine as a source of sleep problems in an older population. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 43(8), 860-864.


[6]Kline, C., Sui, X., Hall, M., Youngstedt, S., Blair, S., Earnest, C., & Church, T. (2012). Dose-response effects of exercise training on the subjective sleep quality of postmenopausal women: exploratory analyses of a randomised controlled trial. BMJ Open, doi:10.1136.

[7]Reid, K.J., Baron, K.G., Lu, B., Naylor, E., Wolfe, L., Zee, P.C. (2010). Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. Sleep Medicine, 11(9), 934-940.

[8]Olde Rikkert, M.G.M., Rigaud, A.S.P. (2001). Melatonin in elderly patients with insomnia - a systematic review. Zeitschrift für Gerontologie und Geriatrie, 34(6), 491-497.

[9]Mishima, K., Okawa, M., Hishikawa, Y., Hozumi, S., Hori, H., Takahashi, K. (1994). Morning bright light therapy for sleep and behavior disorders in elderly patients with dementia. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 89(1), 1-7.

[10]Fetveit, A., Skjerve, A., Bjorvatn, B. (2003). Bright light treatment improves sleep in institutionalised elderly: an open trial. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 18(6), 520-526.

Helena writes for the Sleepio blog, bringing you the latest in sleep research. 

Photo credit: RelaxingMusic on Flickr

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Tim Kelly posted 20 March 2020

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Good sleep your good heath

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