Getting More ZZZs

By Elizabeth Godley


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As a mature adult, if you have trouble sleeping at night, you have plenty of company. In 1982, the US National Institute on Aging studied more than 9,000 non-institutionalized people aged 65 years and older. More than half (57%) reported some form of chronic sleep disruption, while only 12 per cent reported no sleep complaints.

Among all the participants, the prevalence of chronic sleep complaints included difficulty in initiating or maintaining sleep (43%), nocturnal waking (30%), insomnia (29%), daytime napping (25%), trouble falling asleep (19%), waking too early (19%) and waking not rested (13%).

And these problems can have serious consequences, says Dr. Glenn Landry, a postdoctoral fellow researching sleep and aging at the University of British Columbia. He cites studies showing that for people over 65 years old, sleeping for less than six-and-a-half hours a night is associated with a significant decline in cognitive function. In other words, sleep-deprived seniors are more likely to experience early cognitive impairment. These changes can be subtle, at first, for example: having difficulty recalling names or appointments; forgetting where we put things; or forgetting what we were doing.

Studies have shown sleep is important for learning and memory, and the sleep-deprived brain does not consolidate new learning as well, resulting in memory impairment. Poor sleep is also associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and researchers theorize this may be because toxic substances accumulate in our brains when they are not “washed out” during sleep.

Seniors tend to fall asleep easily, but often struggle to sustain sleep, Dr. Landry notes. We typically wake between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. and find it difficult, if not impossible, to fall back into deep sleep. He suggests this may be because our biological clock, which regulates daily rhythms of physiology and behaviour, is susceptible to aging, just like the rest of our body.

Our biological clock uses the timing of light exposure and physical activity to synchronize our daily rhythms with the solar day-night cycle. Dr. Landry’s research suggests sleep disruptions in seniors may be related to insufficient sunlight during the day and too much light exposure at night. Sedentary daytime activity and exposure to light at night decreases melatonin production, a hormone that plays an important role in getting good quality sleep. So, less active seniors – those who spend a lot of time indoors during the day and get too much light late at night because they are reading, watching TV or using other electronic devices – may be particularly prone to poor sleep.

The good news is that we can improve our sleep. Start with an active lifestyle that includes routine exposure to sunlight during the day, combined with light avoidance late at night. Better lifestyle choices can make a difference too: smoking, drinking caffeinated beverages in the afternoon and consuming alcohol at night, all contribute to poor sleep quality.

Dr. Landry also warns that undiagnosed sleep apnea is an important problem for many people, who do not realize they literally stop breathing several times an hour. Sleep apnea is easy to diagnose – ask your family doctor if you suspect it may be affecting your sleep.

Finally, napping is not the no-no we once thought, Dr. Landry says. As long as we keep naps to less than two hours, they do not negatively affect night-time sleep and could actually help keep us alert and focused during our waking hours.

If you live in the Vancouver area, Dr. Landry is looking for participants for a study on sleep and cognition in seniors. Contact him at glenn.landry@ubc.ca

 

DECEMBER 2015 INSPIRED SENIOR LIVING

 

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