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Sleep Deprivation and the Elderly

By Mary Desaulniers

My grandmother used to be up at the crack of dawn"not because she had to, but because her body clock had shifted to a different time frame with increasing age. My step-mother used to complain that after Dad retired, he woke up every morning before six. The connection seems inevitable"older people do not need as much sleep as younger folks do. While changes in sleep patterns may explain this situation to some extent, they do not address a fundamental problem"lack of sleep is not only unhealthy but potentially dangerous to the senior population.

a) The body chronically deprived of sleep is a walking time bomb. Consider some of these statistics from the National Sleep Research Project.

b) Seventeen hours of sustained wakefulness leads to a decrease in performance equivalent to a blood-alcohol level of 0.05%.

c) Research estimates that fatigue is involved in one in 6 road accidents. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster and the Chernobyl nuclear accident have all been attributed to human errors in which sleep deprivation played a role.

d) As well, sleep compromises the immune system; it decreases your resistance to infections. A study at San Diego's Veteran Medical Center discovered that reducing a person's nightly normal sleep time by half decreases the activity of T-cells"the cells that destroy bacteria, viruses and tumor cells.

e) Young adults who are sleep deprived may be increasing their risk for diseases that accompany old age.

f) A recent study at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine suggests that sleep deprivation in older adults can lead to earlier death. The study involved tests that measured EEG sleep assessments. Results showed that those with low percentages of REM sleep were at the greatest risk. REM is an active period of sleep characterized by interval brain activity and rapid bursts of eye movement. REM is the brain wave stage of dreaming sleep (the theta stage) that is characterized by increased creativity, memory, healing and integrative emotional experience (what is usually called the "Ah-ha! moment of insight and connection). There is no doubt that REM sleep contributes to the development of human imagination and consciousness.

There are, however measures that one can adopt to promote restful sleep. Like anything else, proper sleep can be encouraged through the maintenance of familiar and soothing routines a ritual that is sometimes referred to as "sleep hygiene."

1. Exercise: An exercise routine (30-40 minutes) four to five times as week is excellent not only for sleep promotion, but for cardiovascular health, weight maintenance, osteoporosis and diabetes as well. It's like killing 5 birds with one stone! Both aerobic and resistance training can increase energy expenditure and lean body mass. As well, exercise is a natural mood enhancer because repetitive movement helps the body release its natural store of endorphins"the good feeling hormone.

2. Alpha and Theta-Wave CDs and relaxation music: Listening to soothing music or CD's that help entrain your brainwave activities can definitely help you access Alpha and Theta brainwave states more readily. New technology is providing us with more accessible ways to tap into our subconscious mind and allow us to mould our behavior and emotions inside out.

3. Reduced liquids: Cut down on liquids in the evening as this will prevent frequent bathroom visits that interrupt sleep.

4. Reduced caffeine: Do not consume caffeinated products after 2 in the afternoon. Double check your medication as well; some drugs also disturb sleep. Anti-depressants, for example, can disturb normal sleep patterns and some barbiturates suppress REM sleep which can be harmful over a long period. Decongestants can also act as stimulants and beta blockers are known to cause insomnia.

5. Turn digital clocks away from your line of vision. Studies show that even the tiny luminous rays from a digital alarm clock can be strong enough to disrupt a sleep cycle. The digital light turns off a "neural switch in the brain, causing levels of a key sleep chemical to decline within minutes.

6. Hot Bath: Researchers who studied female insomniacs (aged 60-70) found that those who had a hot bath before sleep spent more time in deep, slow brainwave sleep.

7. Avoid heavy, late meals that sit heavily in your stomach.

8. A glass of hot milk just before bedtime will also give your brain the amino acid tryptophan which the body converts to sleep-inducing chemicals.

9. Consult a doctor or dentist if you have a problem with sleep apnea, which can be controlled by a simple plastic appliance that fits in the mouth.

10. Last but not least, for those who are sleepless because of unresolved issues or problems"learn to make amends where changes can be made and lean to walk away (mentally and perhaps physically) when things cannot be changed. Pray and place everything in the hands of the Universe. Know that you are more than your problems.

Copyright 2006 Mary Desaulniers

About The Author
Mary Desaulniers

A runner for 27 years, retired schoolteacher and writer, Mary is now doing what she loves--running, writing, helping people reclaim their bodies. Nutrition, exercise, positive vision and purposeful engagement are the tools used to turn their bodies into creative selves.


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