Sleep and Older Adults: What You Should Know

Everyone needs sleep. Aside from being biologically fundamental, sleep is crucial for maintaining good health. Adequate amounts of sleep can help you maintain a healthy weight, lower your risk for serious chronic conditions, reduce stress, improve mood, and promote good cognitive functioning.

An adequate amount of sleep is an even greater necessity for older adults. Senior living care providers must understand how sleep patterns change with age and how to assess and address these changes through monitoring sleep.

Sleep in Older Adults

As with most things, sleep changes with age. Researchers have shown there are typical age-related changes that occur in sleep quality and patterns. Compared with younger adults, older adults spend more time in bed but have deterioration in both the quality and quantity of sleep. Nightly average values for older adults range from 5–7 hours of sleep a night.

Many older adults do not have trouble falling asleep, but tend to be awake in the middle of the night or early morning. As a result, they get less overall sleep and less quality sleep. This can lead to short-term health concerns like increased risk for falls and daytime fatigue. Chronic sleep disturbances can also create long-term health concerns due to links between sleep and brain health.

Primary Sleep Disorders

Sleep disturbances are very common in older adults — a study assessing the prevalence of sleep complaints in more than 9000 persons aged 65 years and older found that 57% had some form of chronic sleep disruption. Additionally, many older adults meet the criteria for diagnosed primary sleep disorders.

Types of primary sleep disorders are:

  • insomnia, or difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or restless sleep
  • sleep apnea, or brief interruptions in breathing during sleep
  • restless leg syndrome (RLS), or the overwhelming need to move your legs during sleep
  • periodic limb movement disorder, or involuntary movement of the limbs during sleep
  • circadian rhythm sleep disorders, or a disrupted sleep-wake cycle
  • REM behavior disorder, or the vivid acting out of dreams during sleep

A 2015 study found that approximately 5% of older adults meet criteria for clinically significant insomnia disorders and 20% for sleep apnea syndromes.

sleep in older adults

Using Data to Monitor Sleep in Older Adults

To understand patterns during sleep, a passive nighttime device such as bed sensor is a useful tool to monitor sleep. Devices like these normally track nighttime movement to assess quality and quantity of sleep and can provide useful insights which can be used to mitigate issues associated with poor sleep.

Short Term Advantages

Insights surrounding sleep patterns create an immediate advantage for care staff to better understand residents’ health. For example, sleep monitors can notify care staff if a resident is sleeping poorly. Caregivers can use this information to better tailor the care plans of specific residents because they understand when a resident may be fatigued or at a greater risk for a fall.

Within a few weeks of use, major changes in sleep patterns are clearly indicated through nighttime activity data. If a resident suddenly experiences a drastic change in their sleep pattern, this indicates something may be wrong. Perhaps the resident is suffering from an underlying medical condition. Without a sleep monitoring device, this information would likely not be gathered or utilized. With this information, however, the care staff can proactively assess physical and mental health to see what is causing a resident’s change in sleep.

Long Term Advantages

Data collected over longer periods can also help care staff assess resident behavior changes over time. If a resident is on medication or has made changes to their sleep routine, data allows the care staff to identify if the treatment is effective at improving sleep quality. If sleep quality is not improving, care staff can assess and tailor the treatment accordingly.

Future Advantages

Findings indicate that poor sleep is a risk factor for cognitive decline and brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Although these associations are not yet clear, healthy sleep appears to play an important role in maintaining brain health with age and may play a key role in Alzheimer’s Disease prevention.

A study done with rats found that during sleep the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically, washing away harmful waste proteins that build up between brain cells during waking hours. Significant accumulation of waste proteins, such as beta-amyloid proteins, are the pathological hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. While not proven in humans yet, this information can help explain the association between sleep disorders and brain diseases.

Good sleep is an incredibly important aspect of life for health and well-being. With age, older adults may face changes in their sleep so it is vital to monitor sleep and utilize data-driven insights to provide quality care.

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