Solving the Mysteries of Sleep

Related topics: Health & Wellness

Does this couple need a marriage counselor — or a sleep specialist?

Senior couple; the man is snoring

Sleep was once considered a rather mysterious phenomenon. We knew we wanted to do it, but we weren't sure why! People often tried to cut back on sleep, thinking they were being industrious and virtuous — yet, it turns out that good sleep is vital for good health. Sleep lowers our pain level, helps us maintain a healthy weight, and helps us avoid or manage so many health conditions, from diabetes to heart disease to depression.

Fortunately, researchers today have sophisticated technologies at their disposal with which to learn more about sleep, that portion of each 24 hours during which we might appear to be doing nothing — but in fact, during which our brains and bodies are doing quite a bit!

What's new in our understanding of sleep and aging? Let's take a look at some interesting recent findings.

While we slumber, our brains aren't slacking. New studies confirm that it is during sleep that our brains consolidate memories. A good night's sleep is a better way to perform well on a test than cramming all night, experts say. Scientists have also found that it is only during sleep that the brain's natural cleaning system can remove waste. University of Copenhagen expert Dr. Maiken Nedergaard uses this analogy: "There is probably a good reason why we do not clean the brain while awake — how could the nerve cells work in a dishwasher?"

New understanding of the relationship between sleep problems and dementia. A study from University of California, Berkeley found that changes in the brain caused by dementia can have a negative effect on our sleep, and poor sleep might even be considered a diagnostic sign. The opposite also is true, they found: People whose sleep quality declined between their 50s and 60s had a greater risk of later developing Alzheimer's disease. The researchers urge people to seek treatment right away for sleep disorders, and to practice good sleep habits — for example, getting enough sleep, creating a quiet, dark sleep environment, and avoiding the use of light-emitting devices such as smartphones in the evening.

Sleep problems come with a hefty price tag. Research from University of Michigan Medicine found that 56% of people older than 65 are dealing with obstructive sleep apnea, which they define as "a sleep disorder in which the throat collapses during sleep, causing the patient to repeatedly stop breathing for periods of 10 seconds or longer throughout the night." Yet only 8% of these seniors have ever been evaluated or treated. This could be pricey: Another study, this one from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, showed that if seniors with sleep apnea are treated for the condition, their Medicare costs are on average $20,000 less per year than those who are not treated.

Sleep problems can hurt your marriage! A study from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center revealed that when spouses don't get a good night's sleep, they are liable to have more arguments, and to be more hostile to one another during those tiffs. The team says sometimes this is because one partner is having trouble sleeping, and then keeps the other one awake! "Part of the issue in a marriage is that sleep patterns often track together. If one person is restless, or has chronic problems, that can impact the other's sleep. If these problems persist over time, you can get this nasty reverberation within the couple," noted study author Janice Kiecoll-Glaser. So don't just get help for snoring, sleep apnea or other problems for your own health. Do it for the health of your relationship, as well!

Do you need a sleeping pill, or a walk in the park? A University of Illinois study found that seniors who have access to nature report better quality sleep. In part, the experts speculate, this is because we tend to get more physical activity when we’re in natural surroundings. But that doesn't explain the entire effect. The team thinks spending time in nature helps regulate our circadian rhythm, also known as our sleep/wake cycle — our internal clock that urges our bodies to shut down for the night and come back to alertness in the morning. Said study author Prof. Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, who is now at Brown University, "If there is a way for persons over 65 to spend time in nature, it would improve the quality of their sleep — and their quality of life — if they did so."

What's up with coffee and sleep? We've long known that coffee can perk us up in the morning — but, if we have that cup of joe in the evening, we’re liable to toss and turn. A research team from University of Colorado Boulder explains why. The caffeine in coffee, which the study authors call "the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world," affects the hormones that regulate our circadian rhythms, causing a delay in the time our bodies power down by about 40 minutes. The effect even shows up in primitive creatures like algae and fruit flies, they report!

Studies continue to confirm that while older adults may have trouble getting to sleep and falling asleep, this isn’t "just a part of getting older." Our sleep patterns often do change as we grow older — for example, we tend to go to sleep earlier and then wake up earlier in the morning. But more troublesome sleep problems might be caused by pain, anxiety, the medications we take, and inactivity. Ask your doctor for an evaluation. You might be referred to a sleep specialist. These experts offer many therapies to improve our sleep. It's well worth the effort. Sweet dreams!

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2020 IlluminAge

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