The Importance of Sleep for Older Adults

According to polls taken by the National Sleep Foundation, eighty percent of older adults aged 65-84 report having sleep difficulties. Perhaps you wake up early or don’t sleep as soundly as you’d like. Or, as a woman, you might be experiencing extreme temperature fluctuations that make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. Whatever the reason, sleep is vitally important, especially for older adults.

Older adults need good restorative sleep to stay healthy. How much is enough? According to a study by the University of Oregon published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, the experts believe all older adults need six to nine hours in order to remain healthy and to maintain their highest cognitive abilities. Sleep deprivation negatively affects many areas of your life including mood, energy levels, immune response and cognition.

Sleep, Brain Health and Dementia

Sleep plays an important role in maintaining brain health and lowers the risk of age-related cognitive decline. Findings indicate that poor sleep is a risk factor for cognitive decline and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. A review of over 30,000 people, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, reported that older adults who sleep less than six hours and more than nine had significantly lower cognitive scores. Another study, this time using PET scans to measure amyloid protein in the brain, showed that persons who did not experience sufficient slow-wave deep sleep, which is believed to clear out amyloid protein (which is linked to Alzheimer’s), had problems with cognition.

Emotional Health and Well-Being

Sleep and mood are closely connected. Inadequate or poor sleep disrupts hormone levels (serotonin, dopamine and cortisol) leading to irritability and stress. Chronic insomnia often leads to the development of mood disorders, such as depression or anxiety. In a typical psychiatric practice, chronic sleep problems affect 50-80% of patients compared to the 10-18% typically affected in the general population.

Sleep and Concentration

The ability to concentrate or pay attention is especially sensitive to the effects of sleep deprivation, compromising and interfering with the brain’s ability to function. In fact, research suggests that 75% of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may have a chronic sleep problem.

Sleep Deprivation Slows Down Reaction Time

According to studies, sleep deprivation negatively impacts the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other, causing mental lapses that affect reaction times. In fact, moderate sleep deprivation is compared to being under the influence of alcohol. Reaction times are impacted by sleeplessness. Being able to react to the world around you is important to keeping yourself and others safe.

Sleep Affects Memory

Sleep deprivation impairs learning and a person’s ability to store and recall memories; in fact, it is deeply critical to all phases of memory. And, to make matters worse, disrupted sleep during middle age, including insomnia, can affect cognitive health and a person’s ability to recall memories even a decade or more later.

Memories are made when you’re awake, but it’s during sleep that memory consolidation (the brain’s process of storing memories for long-term retrieval) takes place. In fact, multiple stages of non-REM sleep enable your brain to store memories for later recall.

Sleep Affects Decision Making and Judgment Skills

Solid planning, sound judgment and thoughtful decision become increasingly more difficult when sleep deprivation is present. Sleeplessness and insomnia sabotage your decision-making skills, making it harder for you to handle complex decision-making tasks and harder to make judgment calls that require balancing risk and reward. Not getting enough sleep makes a person more likely to be impulsive and more likely to engage in risky behavior. Sleep deprivation can lead to unethical behaviors, as well, such as cheating.

Sleep and Creativity

REM sleep (the period of sleep when you dream most actively and vividly) is especially important when it comes to inspiration and creative thinking. Since periods of REM sleep become progressively longer throughout the night, when your sleep is short-changed, you miss out on the more creativity-boosting effects of REM sleep.

Sleep Deprivation and Women

Studies show that women need more sleep than men. Women tend to multi-task more, which means their brains expend increased energy, translating into a need for more sleep – on average, about 20 minutes more than men each night. Researchers at Duke University found that when women didn’t get enough sleep they experienced more mental and physical responses such as depression, anger and hostility early in the day.

Sleep Physically Affects Your Body

Without adequate sleep, your body cannot do the chore of healing itself – repairing damaged cells and tissue. Your body needs adequate rest to fight infectious diseases. Sleep deprivation can have a devastating impact on your immune system. When you sleep, your body releases proteins called cytokines which help your body fight inflammation and infection. Infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced when you don’t get enough sleep. Long-term lack of sleep also increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Sleep also improves how well a vaccine you have received works by helping your body make antibodies to bolster your immune system.

Sleep and Fall Risk

Studies have shown that older adults who don’t receive adequate rest are at a higher risk of falling. Poor sleep quality, often caused by noise, insomnia and pain, can result in slowed responses, excessive sleepiness during the day and difficulties with concentration, factors which all contribute to an increased risk of falling.

Sleep and Pain

Numerous factors must be considered when dealing with pain management; however, sleep may be the most critical. Evidence suggests that sleep, pain and depression are all interrelated and a change in one will impact the other two. Further evidence even suggests that poor sleep can predict pain and compound a person’s pain experience. Insomnia is thought to affect more than 10% of the US population, but a recent study found that for those dealing with the pain of arthritis, the percentage jumps to 23%. The same study also reported that those with arthritis and depression/anxiety were more likely to experience disturbed sleep. Inadequate sleep reduces a person’s pain threshold and contributes to an overall decreased quality of life.

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

By now, you should be convinced that getting a good night’s sleep is important to your physical, emotional and cognitive health. But “knowing” and “doing” are two totally different matters. For some, sleep can be elusive. There are steps you can take, however, to improve your chances of getting a good night’s sleep. Let’s look at them now.

  • Physical activity is important. Regular exercise increases your body’s need for rest and, as an added benefit, releases endorphins which boosts mood and reduces depression
  • Reduce caffeine intake, especially later in the day. Stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine, can interfere with your ability to fall asleep and receive a good night’s sleep
  • Avoid spicy foods and a large meal close to bedtime. Both can prevent you from falling asleep and can awaken you in the middle of the night
  • Avoid drinking fluids close to bedtime – one and a half to two hours prior to bedtime
  • Pets can interfere with a person’s ability to get a good night’s rest. Competing with your pet over a pillow or space in the bed or having to listen to them snore prevents you from getting the rest you need. It’s best to give them their own bed, in another room if possible
  • Keep the bedroom temperature cool and comfortable. Some experts recommend between 60 and 67 degrees. The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping the room cool and finding the temperature that is most comfortable for you
  • Rather than resorting to prescription medications, try natural remedies such as melatonin, lavender sachets inside your pillowcase or a few drops of lavender essential oil on your pillow. Getting outside and soaking in the sun’s rays can help regulate your own natural melatonin as well
  • Use your bed for sleeping. Do not watch TV while in bed
  • Create an environment in your bedroom that is conducive to sleep. Use room darkening window treatments, eye masks, aromatherapy (with lavender) and soothing sounds or white noise. Replace old mattresses
  • Create relaxing bedtime rituals. Find things you can do that quiet and soothe your mind and body. Drink a cup of warm non-caffeinated herbal tea. Read a calming book. Do slow, gentle stretching exercises. Take a relaxing bath or warm shower. Create a routine you can use every night so your body and mind learn to expect sleep
  • Do not use electronic devices in the bedroom. The light that electronic devices such as TVs, phones, tablets and computers emit and the mental activity that often accompanies their use, promotes wakefulness. Even TV use should be limited at night, stopping its use 1-2 hours before retiring, especially if you’re having sleep difficulties
  • Some medications can cause problems with sleep, especially when combined with other medications or if taken at the wrong time of day. Review all medications you’re taking with a doctor or pharmacist, discussing any potential sleep issues that can occur from their use

Discover Forest Hill

If you’re looking for a way to get a good night’s rest, Forest Hill might be the answer. The carefree lifestyle of living in our full-service continuing care retirement community will eliminate many of the stresses in your life. (Stress has a big impact on sleep.) Not only can we make your life easier and more carefree, but you can relax knowing that you’ll always have a place to call home here at Forest Hill because we offer a full spectrum of care – independent living through skilled nursing. Contact us to learn more. You’ll sleep better knowing you did.