The surprising danger seniors face from sleep loss

“Though sleep is called our best friend, it is a friend who often keeps us waiting!”  -Jules Verne-

Almost 60 million Americans are finding sleep to be elusive these days, especially women and people over 65. They experience chronic problems either falling or staying asleep.

Maybe you’re one of them.

Trouble is, getting enough sleep, and the right kind is absolutely crucial to your health.

In fact, ensuring a good night’s sleep may be the single most important thing you can do to avoid life-threatening conditions like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Just ask Matthew Walker.

“I take my sleep incredibly seriously.”

Matthew Walker is a professor of neuroscience and the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at University of California, Berkeley.

According to Walker, we are in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic,” and it’s costing people their lives.

“No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” says Walker.

Some quick facts:

  • After just one night of four to five hours of sleep, your body’s natural killer cells (the ones that kill cancer cells before they even reproduce) drop by 70%
  • Sleep loss is linked to breast, bowel, and prostate cancer.
  • The World Health Organization has classified any type of night-shift work as a probable carcinogen. (Beware of jobs that give you cancer)

Research has also linked sleep loss with an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, hypertension, depression, heart attack, stroke, and respiratory disease.

Unfortunately, many people turn to drugs to solve their sleep loss problems, and this has consequences of its own.

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The dangers of sleeping pills

Even if you used sleeping pills when you were younger, they present different risks as you become older. If you are over 65, you’d be well advised to think twice about sleep aids, whether prescription or over-the-counter.

The most common over-the-counter sleep medicines, including Tylenol Nighttime and Benadryl, contain a sleep-inducing ingredient known as diphenhydramine hydrochloride. Among the side effects are dizziness, confusion, lightheadedness, and slower reaction time.

These side effects tend to be more pronounced in older adults, who already have slower metabolisms and often lower body weight. Also, the side effects are often written off as just another “thing” that happens with age.

The biggest risk, though, is falling.

Getting up to use the bathroom at night becomes a more frequent event with age. Dizziness, lightheadedness, and slower reaction times can result in a fall, possibly a broken bone. This is often the beginning of a string of more serious health problems, particularly if you have osteoporosis.

So, how do you get more sleep?

Changes in our sleep-wake cycle are normal as we age. But there are still things you can do to help your body regulate its sleep patterns, and bring about more restful sleep.

  1. Vitamin D – Enough of this vitamin is important to maintaining your body’s sleep cycle. It is available from food (fatty fish like salmon and sardines, eggs, and dairy products) or through a supplement.
  2. Exposure to sunlight – Morning sunlight helps reset your body’s sleep clock, and increases the likelihood of a good night’s sleep.
    If you live in a place without a lot of sunlight this time of year, consider purchasing a lightbox. With the help of your doctor or a sleep loss specialist, you will be able to use this device that mimics daylight to give yourself the daily dose your body needs.
  3. Get moving! – Even a brief and easy round of walking each day will positively affect your sleep. Doing yoga is another great way to help your body in its efforts to avoid sleep loss. It has the bonus of building balance, strength, and flexibility. Get your exercise earlier in the day so you are not too ramped up to sleep.
  4. Watch those bedtime snacks! – Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods 4-6 hours before bed. Try a light bedtime snack, like warm milk or a banana.
  5. Stop drinking anything at least 2-3 hours before your regular bedtime to avoid being awakened by your bladder.
  6. Remove screens from the bedroom – Exposure to the light of a phone or computer screen in the hours before bedtime can make it much harder to fall and stay asleep.

Finally, if all else fails, there is a form of therapy that could help.

Dr. Ariel Green, a geriatric health specialist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, reports that cognitive-behavioral therapy has been as effective as medication for those who are willing to work with a therapist.

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  1. Third of elderly Americans take sleeping pills amid ‘catastrophic’ and deadly insomnia epidemic — The Independent
  2. ‘Catastrophic’ lack of sleep in modern society is killing us, warns leading sleep scientist — The Independent
  3. ‘Sleep should be prescribed’: what those late nights out could be costing you — The Guardian
  4. The dangers of sleeping pills for seniors — The Globe and Mail
  5. More on Sleeping Pills and Older Adults — The New York Times
  6. Weaning Older Patients Off Sleeping Pills — The New York Times
  7. 10 Tips to Help Seniors Sleep Better — United HealthCare Services
  8. Sleep Changes in Older Adults — American Academy of Family Physicians
  9. How Sensory Stimuli Affect Our ZzZs — Tomorrow
  10. Sleep and Health — Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School
  11. Short sleep duration and incident coronary artery calcification — JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association
  12. Human longevity is associated with regular sleep patterns, maintenance of slow wave sleep, and favorable lipid profile — Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience
  13. Researchers are studying the link between sleep and cancer — Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA)
  14. Sleep Disruption Among Older Men and Risk of Prostate Cancer — Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention
  15. Sleep and aging: 1. Sleep disorders commonly found in older people — The Canadian Medical Association Journal
  16. Can’t Sleep? Neither Can 60 Million Other Americans — NPR
  17. Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders — Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem
  18. How to Fall Asleep — HowStuffWorks
  19. 30 Days to Better Sleep: Expose Yourself to Morning Sunlight — Verywell
Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.