In 2016, Dr. Wayne Giles, then director of CDC’s Division of Population Health, issued a stern warning: As a nation, we are not getting enough sleep.”

Sleep-deprivation has been in health news ever since. Reasons for restless nights are as varied as our ages. Nearly half of men and women over the age of 65 say they have at least one sleep problem, according to multiple sleep studies.

For older adults a few sleepless nights may pinpoint to too many medications, alcoholic drinks and even personal problems, such as poor bedtime habits, financial worries and stress.

The dangers of too little sleep

According to a study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, sleep plays a vital role in physical and mental functioning. Too few hours may be associated with serious risks, such as:

  • Poor physical function
  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Falls and fractures
  • Mortality
Pexels woman in bed
Photo by Ivan Obolensky from Pexels

“Sleep impacts everything — and everything impacts sleep,” said Northside Hospital’s Director of Sleep Medicine Dr. Scott Leibowitz, part of the Laureate Medical Group team. “More and more, we’re understanding the impact of sleep dysfunction on our health. In particular, [we see this] in cardiovascular [heart and blood vessel] disease risk and patient outcomes.”

Leibowitz added that obstructive sleep apnea — a sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep — has been found to increase the risk of high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, sudden cardiac death and heart arrhythmias [irregular heartbeats], as well as diabetes and obesity.

“Less than six hours per night has also been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular mortality, high blood pressure and diabetes,” Leibowitz said, referring to a recent study by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The study demonstrated that less than six hours of sleep can increase the risk of coronary atherosclerosis (a hardening and narrowing of the arteries that slowly blocks arteries, restricting blood flow).

“The results of this study highlighted the importance of healthy sleep habits for the prevention of heart disease,” said Leibowitz.

Making changes

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the usual changes we see in parents or grandparents reflect patterns of sleep. For example, they may be getting tired earlier in the evening, as well as rising much earlier in the morning. In some cases, a “cat-nap” may augment their sleeping patterns.

Older adults often wake up during the night to use the bathroom and then find getting back to sleep increasingly more difficult. And finally, they could struggle with staying asleep or just falling asleep in the first place.

There’s a lot of information to consider, especially when using prescription drugs for sleep. Health professionals must take extra care as our populations ages. For example, some medications (called ‘benzos’) can be dangerous — even fatal — if taken for sleep with other prescribed pain medications.

Antihistamines, alcohol, melatonin and herbal products used for snoozing may add problems, as well. Discuss each with your health provider or pharmacist before mixing them — whether they’re prescribed or over-the-counter purchases.

It’s always important to discuss your sleep problems with your healthcare provider, and for some people, it’s worth the effort to taking part in a professional sleep study in a lab. Sleep studies are a “comprehensive characterization of one’s sleep physiology,” said Leibowitz. This type of testing can detect sleep apnea, as well as other conditions that may be causing sleep disruption, he explained.

“Keep in mind,” said Leibowitz, “technologists are generally looking at a computer screen that’s monitoring your physiological variables, not a video screen of you sleeping.” However, sleepers are recorded on video during the study.

Less may be best

Perhaps Brahm’s Lullaby isn’t the right answer for mature adults, but there are some things you can do for a better night’s sleep, say experts.

Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep noted that researchers are especially busy trying to help today’s sleepy population stay awake during the day.

She advised people to turn off the technology. Much of the problem is the “thousands of channels, computer streaming and binge watching, not to mention our growing dependence on mobile phones and social media,” Gamaldo said.

The National Institute on Aging suggests following a regular sleep schedule. They also recommend avoiding late afternoon naps, large meals before bed, late night caffeine and alcohol overuse.

More importantly, get some physical exercise during the day. Researchers don’t completely understand how physical activity improves sleep, said Gamaldo in a Johns Hopkins press release. “We may never be able to pinpoint the mechanism that explains how the two are related,” she said.

But many sleep experts agree that one does help the other.

How much sleep is enough?

In 2015, the National Sleep Foundation had the following recommendations for adults:

  • Adults, ages 26-64: The recommended sleep range remains at 7 to 9 hours. Although 6 to 10 hours may be appropriate, less than 5 and more than 10 hours are not recommended.
  • Older adults, ages 65+ (This is a newly added age category.): The recommended sleep range is 7 to 8 hours. Less than 5 to 6 hours may still be considered appropriate, but more than 9 hours is not recommended.

This data is the result of consensus by many organizations including the American Gerontological Society of America, American Neurological Association, American College of Chest Physicians and the American Geriatrics Society.

Lead photo courtesy of Pixabay

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.