Seniors and Sleep: Five Things You Might Not Know

Related topics: Health & Wellness, Caregivers, Senior Life

To fall asleep fast, bring a book to bed rather than your laptop computer or the TV remote.

During March, the National Sleep Foundation sponsors National Sleep Awareness Week. Appropriately enough, the week ends with the clock change to Daylight Saving Time, the day when Americans lose an hour of sleep—a reminder that many of us don't get enough sleep, which can have a negative impact on many aspects of our health.

Sleep is a complicated body function that is still not fully understood. But researchers are learning more and more about the mysteries of sleep, and have shared intriguing new findings about sleep and healthy aging:

1. Good health and good sleep: the connection works in both directions

It's common sense that poor health can keep older adults from getting a good night's sleep. Painful conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis, or wakefulness due to anxiety and depression can have us fruitlessly counting sheep into the night. But we now also realize more than ever that poor sleep in return hastens the progression of the very health problems that keep us awake, and many other diseases that are more common as we grow older: heart disease, musculoskeletal disorders, memory loss, Parkinson's disease, hypertension, diabetes…the list is long. Poor sleep even raises the risk of falls. It is important to break this cycle by not only managing chronic health conditions as recommended by your doctor, but also by seeking treatment for sleep problems. Once diagnosed, insomnia, sleep apnea and other sleep disorders can be treated with lifestyle changes, improved sleep habits, medical devices and in some cases, sleep medications.

2. Sleeping less? It might not be insomnia.

It's important to get the amount of sleep that our bodies and minds need. A recent study from the University of Warwick in England found that people who sleep for less than six hours each night are 12% more likely to die prematurely. On the other hand, the study found that sleeping over nine hours per night could be a sign of an underlying illness. And despite the common belief that seniors need more sleep than younger adults, the American Medical Association tells us that older people on average actually need less sleep than when they were younger. Seniors who find themselves sleeping less may worry needlessly. Dr. Elizabeth Klerman of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston cautioned, "If older people believe that they need more sleep than they can achieve even when they spend extra time in bed, then they may complain of insomnia and could start taking medications needlessly." Sleepiness during the day is the best sign that a person isn't getting enough sleep and that the problem should be evaluated.

3. Want to maintain a healthy weight? Get a full night's sleep

We burn fewer calories while we are asleep, so it would make sense that sleeping less would help us lose weight, right? Think again! Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden showed that even a single night of sleep loss can both increase the appetite and decrease the amount of energy we use the next day. That combination, over time, can lead to steady weight gain. Study author Christian Benedict said, "Bearing in mind that insufficient sleep is a growing problem in modern society, our results may explain why poor sleep habits can affect people's risk to gain weight in the long run. It may therefore be important to sleep about eight hours every night to maintain a stable and healthy body weight."

4. Do you bring your smart phone to bed? Bad idea.

Each year during National Sleep Awareness Week, the National Sleep Foundation releases the results of a poll on some aspect of sleep. Last year's timely topic was the effect of communications technologies on sleep. The Foundation discovered that Americans report "very active technology use" shortly before bedtime. Almost 95% of the 1,508 people polled reported using a computer, watching TV, playing a video game or using their cell phone at least a few nights before going to bed. The researchers say that part of the problem is that we squander some of our sleep time surfing the web or watching TV. But stealing hours of sleep to play Angry Birds isn't the only problem: according to study author Dr. Charles Czeisler, "Light-emitting screens are in heavy use within the pivotal hour before sleep. Artificial light exposure between dusk and the time we go to bed at night suppresses release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, enhances alertness, and shifts circadian rhythms to a later hour—making it more difficult to go to sleep." The authors suggest allowing enough time to wind down and relax in a dimly lit area before going to bed.

5. New understanding of the relationship between sleep and Alzheimer's disease

Sleep is necessary for the formation of long-term memories. While we are asleep, our brains are busy creating and consolidating the memories of the day. Neurologists now know that poor sleep also raises the risk of dementia. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that sleep apnea causes a low level of oxygen that increases the risk of cognitive impairment. Washington University in St. Louis researchers also discovered that sleep deprivation makes the brain plaques of Alzheimer's disease appear earlier and more often. These studies suggest that treating insomnia and other sleep disorders could delay the onset of Alzheimer's.

Some researchers also now believe that sleep disorders may even be an early symptom of Alzheimer's. And yet, in some cases sleep disorders lead to a misdiagnosis of dementia: symptoms such as confusion, disorientation and the inability to focus that would suggest cognitive impairment may disappear when the patient gets enough good quality sleep. This is yet another reason to bring up sleep problems with your healthcare provider!

For More Information

See "A Good Night's Sleep" on the National Institute on Aging website for tips about good sleep habits.

The National Sleep Foundation, sponsor of National Sleep Awareness Week, offers consumer information about sleep and sleep disorders, including information about aging and sleep.

Sleep problems are a major challenge for caregivers whose loved one has Alzheimer's disease. Advice about managing sleep disturbances is available from the Mayo Clinic, the National Institute on Aging's Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center, and the Alzheimer's Association.

Why do many seniors go to bed earlier and wake up earlier than when they were young? A recent article in LiveScience provides a possible explanation.

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