March 1, 2012 at 8:00 AM ET
Contrary to popular belief, healthy seniors have no problem getting a good night’s rest, a large new study shows.
In fact, researchers found that many seniors actually report better sleep than your average 20- and 30-somethings, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Sleep.
The bottom line is that sleep problems aren’t a part of normal aging and can be a sign of health problems, said the study’s lead author Michael Grandner, a research associate at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
“This study shows that older people are not more likely to complain of sleep problems or daytime tiredness, relative to younger people, if you take demographics, socioeconomics, health, access to care, and depressed mood out of the equation,” Grandner said.
When an older person complains of sleep issues, it could be a sign of health issues, he said. "Sleep is a vital part of overall health, and ignoring sleep problems, especially in older people, is placing them at increased risk for poor health and outcomes down the road.”
Grandner and his colleagues questioned 155,877 randomly chosen adults in a phone survey that asked about sleep disturbances, daytime tiredness, as well as race, income, education, depressed mood, general health and date of last medical check-up.
To get a handle on how folks were sleeping, the researchers asked: “Over the last 2 weeks, how many days have you had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep or sleeping too much?” and “Over the last 2 weeks how many days have you felt tired or had little energy?”
When the researchers took health and depressed mood into account they found that people reported increasingly better sleep as they grew older – except for a brief decline in mid-life. That mid-life decline was worse for women than men. Grandner suspects menopause may be behind women's mid-life sleep issues but noted that since sleep started to worsen even before then, the stress of work and raising children may be partially to blame. "For men, workplace issues may also be a likely culprit, as that age is associated with peaks in heart disease risk, stress, and sleep apea," he said.
Compared to seniors over 80 years old, men between the ages of 18 and 24 were twice as likely to report problems sleeping. Among women the differences weren’t as large. Compared to seniors over 80, women between 18 and 24 were 1.61 times as likely to report problems sleeping.
This doesn’t prove that seniors are sleeping better, Grandner said. It’s just as likely that sleep problems bother them less. “In my mind, the most likely reason is that actual age-related changes in sleep don't consistently produce the level of discomfort as they would in a younger person,”
Beyond this, there just may be generational differences.
“The generation of people in that age range [seniors] may me more likely to take a stoic attitude towards symptoms,” Grandner said.
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