Retirement Life
19 September 2022

Supporting sleep health during retirement - Part two

In a recent article we looked at why ageing affects sleep and provided some tips for improving sleep. But what about some of the common problems older people face with their sleep? Here, we take a deeper dive into the subject with Dr Rosie Gibson from the School of Psychology at Massey University. Rosie has spent the last 14 years researching sleep across the lifespan and has a particular interest in the sleep of older people and people with dementia.


“It’s clear that some older adults experience more serious sleep problems than in younger age. These can contribute to feelings of waking fatigue, anxiety, depression, and other health problems,” says Rosie. “But it gets a little complicated because there also seems to be a shared social expectation and acceptance that sleep will deteriorate as we get older.”


The international guidelines on sleep (according to the Sleep Foundation) suggest that older adults (65 or more years old) should be getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night. However, the ideal amount can vary from person to person, and sleeping anywhere between 5-9 hours is also deemed appropriate. Sleep is also impacted by coexisting health issues, activities in the daytime, as well as a history of sleep problems.

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There are many potential causes of sleep problems in older adults, including:


  • Poor sleep habits: If you’re used to sleeping during the day or staying up late into the night, it can be hard to adjust to a more regular sleep schedule. “We often take our sleep for granted,” says Rosie. “But it’s important to address the issue if you are feeling excessively tired during the day.”
  • Medications: Many medications can cause sleep problems, including those for high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid problems, and asthma.
  • Depression and anxiety: These conditions can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep (leading to insomnia).
  • Pain: Pain from arthritis, back problems, and other conditions can make it hard to sleep.
  • Sleep apnea: This condition causes you to stop breathing for brief periods during sleep, and can lead to daytime fatigue.
  • Restless legs syndrome: This disorder causes an uncomfortable sensation in the legs making it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Disrupted sleep not only causes daytime sleepiness but also affects our mood, eating habits, memory and general functioning. “Excessive daytime sleepiness increases the likelihood of social isolation, driving accidents or falling, so it’s important to take it seriously if you or a loved one are having issues sleeping,” says Rosie.

Typically, sleeping tablets should be used for short-term issues only, as they can become addictive and lead to difficulty functioning during the daytime.

Another dilemma for many retirees is the use of melatonin to help induce sleep. Rosie explains that although it is available over the counter in the United States of America, it is a prescription-only medication in New Zealand. “Melatonin performs other functions in the body, not just relating to sleep. We don’t yet know the long-term effects of melatonin tablets,” says Rosie.


Rosie has also found that fatigue or feeling worn out also plays a role in when workers decide to retire. “Our analyses of Massey University’s Health Work and Retirement cohort data highlighted that indicators of daytime sleepiness are significantly associated with retiring early,” says Rosie. Other works by Dr Gibson and collaborators indicate the importance of sleep for physical and mental health status, including waking memory and capacity for caregiving. So, it’s well worth taking it seriously if you’re having trouble sleeping. Talk to your family and doctor and see what they suggest. They can help you identify any underlying causes and develop a treatment plan.

Sleep needs to be recognised as a natural tonic for us to lead healthy and productive lives. Prioritising our sleep can not only improve our feelings of alertness, but they can also help with our body’s health and healing and our mental and social wellbeing.


This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.

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Photo of Kathy Catton
Written by:

Kathy Catton

Kathy Catton is a freelance writer and editor, based on the Banks Peninsula. She is an experienced feature writer, magazine editor and copywriter. Quick to grasp the crux of any story and tell it in plain English, Kathy enjoys bringing stories to readers that surprise and delight.

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