Reuters Health - 2003-02-04
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Older adults who have no problems sleeping, such as waking up during the night or taking a long time to fall asleep, may have a survival advantage over their peers who find sleep more of a struggle, new research suggests.
The study discovered that people who were seemingly healthy but spent more than 30 minutes trying to fall asleep were more than twice as likely to die within an average of 13 years than people of similar age who fell asleep more quickly.
Dr. Mary Amanda Dew and her colleagues also found that people who spent a smaller percentage of their time in bed snoozing were also almost twice as likely to die within the same period as their easy-sleeping peers.
The researchers also report a shorter lifespan among people who spend the least or the most time in REM--the dream phase of sleep--compared with those with an average amount.
Dew said that minor sleep problems may act as a "subtle indicator" that seemingly healthy people have undetected problems that could, in future years, affect their well-being.
As such, slight changes in an older person's sleep behavior may act as "an early harbinger that other things were going to go wrong," Dew noted.
For example, researchers have shown that people with dementia or depression may experience changes in their sleeping patterns, and these two conditions can hasten death, Dew added. Consequently, recent patterns such as taking a long time to fall asleep or waking up often during the night may be a reflection of early signs of dementia or depression, she noted, which may, in future years, put someone's health in jeopardy.
Dew cautioned that occasional difficulties falling asleep and waking from time to time during the night can be perfectly normal. However, if an older adult experiences a change in his or her sleeping pattern that seems to persist over time, it might be wise to consult a doctor, Dew said.
During the study, the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania researcher and her colleagues measured the brain activity of 185 people between 59 and 91 years old during sleep, then followed the same people for an average of 13 years. None of the people had health problems that are known to affect sleep.
More older adults report having problems sleeping than any other age group, Dew and her colleagues note in the report in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. Consequently, it makes sense for all older adults to adopt certain habits to help them rest well, Dew said in an interview.
These healthy sleeping habits include dedicating an area strictly to sleep, which is kept quiet and dark when sleeping. People should avoid caffeine and alcohol immediately before falling asleep, she added, and be careful that lengthy naps don't interfere with nightly sleep.
Sleeping too much during the day can make it hard to fall asleep at night, Dew said. For people who need to take naps during the day, she recommended sleeping in bouts of 15 to 20 minutes, which may provide the benefits of longer sleep without disrupting a person's general sleeping schedule.
Napping is like most things in life, Dew said. "If you do it in moderation, it's probably helpful. If you do it too much, it itself could be an unhealthy thing."
In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Daniel F. Kripke of the University of California, San Diego writes that the current study, "surprisingly," did not report that sleeping too little can hurt health.
This is particularly remarkable, given that 40% of the people included in the study slept less than six hours each night, he notes.