How Good Sleep Benefits Seniors

This article first appeared on Senior Care Corner, another resource for family caregivers of seniors.

InsomniaSleep eludes many of us as we age, seemingly more and more as the years pass.

We might tend to wake early or not sleep as deeply. Women who are experiencing extreme temperature changes chalk it up to the change and try to deal with it. Others just accept sleep deprivation as a normal part of aging.

Perhaps your aging loved one has even told you, “I didn’t do anything today to tire me out, why should I sleep OK?” I have heard that from many older adults through the years.

The truth of the matter is we all need a good, deep, restorative sleep every night to stay healthy as we age. The amount and the quality of our sleep does matter, regardless of our age.

When we are sleep deprived our health suffers, including our mood, energy levels and now we are learning — our cognition.

Sleep Research

Sleep and the study of sleep has become very popular among leading researchers today. Putting more emphasis and observation into our sleep patterns has become important even among the technology industry, as we saw this winter at the International CES. [ Sleep Number announced an $8,000 mattress with integrated sensors, and Withings announced an under-the mattress sensor pad that does even more for just $299. See 0:54 video of Withings Aura – available this Fall.]

The digital health, wearable health and fitness sector of digital device development was abuzz about sleep patterns and the health benefits of getting a restful sleep. There are more and more products coming to the market that will track our sleep, tell us about our sleep quality and a host of other sensors that tell us how often we get up from bed too.

My personal wearable fitness band tracks my sleep pattern and many nights I find the results alarming. It helps me understand why some days I don’t feel quite right or my mind is not as clear as it should be when I can see on a chart in my smartphone that I did not have a restful sleep the night before or worse yet for many nights in a row. This is my actual reading and you can see on this night I was restless for 38 minutes and awake for 7! Not a very restorative evening for me.

Measuring Sleep

Most devices that simply measure sleep tell you what you already know but don’t do much to tell you how to sleep better. Still, it’s a start and a bit better than manually maintaining a sleep log on paper.

Sleep deprivation has been shown to have negative health consequences in all of us but especially the aging population. Our cognition, depression, immune response and even the potential development of dementia is now being linked to poor sleep quality. Your mind and body continue to work as you sleep restoring and maintaining all the normal body functions.

Benefits of Sleep May Include our Aging Brain

Six to nine hours per night is the ideal amount of sleep for older adults in order to maintain the highest cognitive abilities, according to a recent study by the University of Oregon published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine recently.

  • Improving sleep quality and duration in older adults could help lower the risk of age-related cognitive decline.
  • A review of over 30,000 people in three countries found that people who sleep less than six hours and more than nine hours had significantly lower cognitive scores than the others.
  • Older adults who don’t get enough sleep have been shown to have brain imaging studies similar to those with Alzheimer’s according to one study.
  • Poor memory has also been linked to inadequate sleep which potentially can contribute to dementia.
  • Emotional well-being is improved with a good night’s sleep.
  • Concentration is also increased when our senior loved one’s have a better rest each day.
  • Sleep helps to repair damaged cells and tissue.
  • When older adults sleep well they have fewer falls, are less fatigued during the waking hours, have improved tolerance for pain, and use fewer over the counter or prescription sleep aids.
  • When you get enough sleep, your immune system has a chance to regain its strength so that it can fight infections such as cold and flu. When you sleep well, it has been shown that any vaccine you receive is working better to help make antibodies to bolster your immune system.

Improving Your Sleep

There are a number of steps that your loved one can take to help improve their sleep quality and quantity before they reach for sleep aides. Among the dangers associated with using sleep aides is the potential for disorienting older adults upon awakening, leading to an increased risk for falls, and also carry an increased risk of dementia.

  1. Get physical! Regular exercise and movement can cause endorphins to be released that boost your senior’s mood. Physical activity could also “wear you out” enough for a good rest.
  2. Watch caffeine intake, especially later in the day. Stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine can interfere with a restful sleep pattern. Don’t forget to avoid a large meal or spicy foods too close to you bedtime which could awaken them in the middle of the night or keep them from falling to sleep.
  3. Have medications reviewed by the doctor or pharmacist. Some medications could interfere with your senior’s restful sleep especially when combined with others or taken at the wrong time.
  4. Kick the pets out of the bedroom. Our seniors love their animals but fighting over the pillow or blanket in the middle of the night or listening to them snore will not help get a peaceful night sleep. Give the pet their own bed on the floor or even better in the next room.
  5. Create a sleep-happy bedroom using room darkening window treatments, aroma therapy, soothing sounds, eye masks. Invest in a new mattress if your senior’s has been used for many years and is showing its age. Avoid watching TV or eating in bed; keep the bed for sleeping.
  6. Relax before sleep time. Make it a point to read a book, quiet your mind and soothe yourself to be ready for sleep. Keep on a consistent sleep schedule every night too so that you get into a routine and the body can find its rhythm.
  7. Keep the air temperature comfortable all throughout the night. Being too hot or too cold will interrupt sleep.
  8. Try natural remedies, such as lavender in your pillow or melatonin. Get outside in the sunshine which will help regulate your senior’s own natural melatonin.
  9. Keep curtains and shades open in the home during the day to feel the effects of the sun.
  10. Avoid drinking fluids near bedtime (within one and a half to two hours before bedtime), as that could result in bladder instability which might awaken your loved one.

Sleep Needs & Habits Individual

Keep in mind that sleep habits and needs are very individual, so what works for one older adult might not be right for others.

Some seniors do well with a nap during the day to refresh themselves. If your senior takes a nap be sure it is for only 15-45 minutes not an all afternoon sleep.

Keep in mind that, for many, napping too long will make it more difficult to fall asleep at night. Be sure the nap is early in the afternoon not late in the day which could also keep them from being ready to sleep at night.

It is not just a passing fancy to do without sleep. It is important to get all the sleep our bodies need to be rejuvenated and face the coming day with energy for living.

Editor’s Comment (added to the original article)

Recent research and a plethora of articles in mainstream media are raising public awareness to the ties between sleep and our health, safety, and performance at school, work, and in sports. And there’s a significant economic benefit. The flood of health & fitness devices and apps are also addressing the sleep issue, but they mostly tell us what we already know — that we don’t sleep well. At least about 100 million of us in America don’t sleep well, according to the CDC.

But there seems to be a gap in the $32B sleep industry that is supposed to help people sleep better. This bifurcated industry is split between mattress retail on one side and sleep medicine (prescription drugs, overnight sleep studies & CPAP machines) on the other. One company addressing this gap is Intelligent Sleep, an Austin startup with a new model of personalized sleep wellness assessment, coaching, and SIMPL™ solutions. SIMPL is an acronym describing their sleep programs; it stands for Sleep, Insomnia, Memory, Performance, Memory, and Longevity.

Sleep is especially important for brain health in seniors. Recent scientific studies (in mice) show that neurons actually shrink during restorative deep sleep, allowing the cerebral fluid to circulate much faster to clear out toxins and amyloid plaques that accumulate during natural cell metabolism.

Another study, however, questions the believed connection between plaque buildup and dementia. Using brain scans of patients showing significant or no cognitive decline, they were surprised to find no impairment among some patients with significant plaque buildup but obvious impairment among some with no plaque buildup at all. So, the researchers still have more work to do to truly understand the associations between sleep, plaque, and dementia.

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