Could Poor Sleep Rob You of Your Independence?

When you were a small child, you probably complained to your parents at bedtime: "Why do I have to go to sleep? It’s a waste of time!" Most of us spend about one-third of our life sleeping—but sleep remains a mystery to us. We don't think much about it until we encounter a sleep problem.

Medical research, however, has not been asleep on the job. Advanced observation techniques and brain imaging are revealing things we didn’t know about the role of sleep in healthy aging. Poor-quality sleep raises the risk of diabetes, stroke, heart disease and many other health conditions. This year, several research studies offered additional insight into the relationship between sleep and brain health.

Sleep and Memory

Why is sleep important for memory? Nothing happens during sleep that we need to remember except for good dreams, right? It turns out that sleep is the time when memories are secured in our brains. During the day we experience thousands of small events, recalling most of them for only a few seconds or at most a few hours. But it is during sleep that certain short-term memories are transformed into long-term memories. The brain waves generated during deep sleep help move memories from the hippocampus—the part of the brain where short-term memories are stored—into the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where long-term memories are stored. This is often compared to the way data is moved from your computer’s clipboard to the hard drive.

This year, University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists showed that in older adults, memories may become "stuck" in the hippocampus because of poor sleep, and then are overwritten by new memories. The researchers are investigating ways to enhance the sleep of older adults. Says the study’s lead author Bryce Mander, "Can you jumpstart slow wave sleep and help people remember their lives and memories better? It’s an exciting possibility."

Sleep and Stress Management

A 2012 study showed that poor sleep worsens the effect of stress on the brains of seniors. Kathi Heffner, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester Medical Center explains that sleep problems increase stress-related inflammation of the brain and body. Says Heffner, "This study offers more evidence that better sleep not only can improve overall well-being but also may help prevent poor physiological and psychological outcomes associated with inflammation."

Sleep and Senior Independence

Sleep may be so important for senior health that it is a determining factor in how independent we can be in our later years. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers revealed that poor sleep is a factor in predicting which seniors will need to receive care in a nursing home or assisted living facility. "Insufficient sleep is associated with a number of chronic diseases and conditions—such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression," said the study authors in the July 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. "Previous studies have also linked disturbed sleep with disability in older adults and impairment in activities of daily living and mobility."

Are Sleep Problems "Just a Part of Growing Older"?

It is true that our sleep patterns change as we age. Seniors also are more likely to experience difficulty falling asleep, waking during the night and sleep apnea, a disorder that causes interrupted breathing during sleep. But we shouldn’t think that sleep problems are inevitable.  Experts from the University of Pittsburgh’s Sleep and Chronobiology Center recently released the results of a five-year study on sleep and seniors that demonstrated that more than half of all retired people age 65 and older sleep at least 7.5 hours per night, and between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7:30 a.m. Said Dr. Timothy Monk, "Our findings suggest that in matters regarding sleep and sleepiness, as in many other aspects of life, most seniors today are doing better than is generally thought. The stereotype of most seniors going to bed at 8 p.m., sleeping very lightly and being unduly sleepy during the day may be quite inaccurate."

These studies all provide a reminder that if you or an older loved one is sleeping poorly, you shouldn’t ignore the problem—or the cause. Sleep problems might be the first sign of a serious health problem; indeed, poor sleep can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Many sleep problems are caused or worsened by arthritis and other painful conditions. Depression, isolation, incontinence and inactivity make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. And many common medications seniors take can cause a restless night.

Don’t delay seeking help. Ask the healthcare provider to conduct an evaluation or recommend a sleep specialist. Many seniors experience improved sleep quality by taking steps such as:

  • Managing health conditions that cause pain or anxiety
  • Following a regular sleep schedule
  • Improving the sleep environment of the bedroom
  • Increasing physical activity during the day
  • Avoiding daytime naps
  • Having medications reviewed
  • Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon or entirely
  • Avoiding alcohol in the evening or entirely

The doctor also may prescribe a sleeping medication. It is important to take these drugs only as recommended and for as short a time as possible. Sleep aid technologies also help many people who are dealing with sleep disorders. It’s important not to give up. A sleep specialist will evaluate your problem and make the best recommendation for helping you make the most of that one-third of your day … at any age.

March 3 – 10 Is National Sleep Awareness Week

National Sleep Awareness Week always ends with the return to Daylight Saving Time, when clocks move ahead and too many Americans lose an hour of sleep. Learn more about sleep health from the sponsor of this event, the National Sleep Foundation.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.