May 22nd, 2013 at 10:00 am
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Elder’s insomnia may warn of other health issues

by Dorian Martin

Dad and I pretty much have the same conversation every morning. When I ask him how he slept, he says something like this: “I slept hard but not soundly. I was up several times during the night, but couldn’t go back to sleep. I don’t feel rested.” His description seems to match symptoms for insomnia, although I’m not a medical doctor. Insomnia can be problematic for elders — new research shows it may signal a need for health services and hospitalization in the future.

The perils of insomnia

Insomnia may be an indicator of future hospitalization and greater use of health services, as shown by a study out of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Researchers analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, which asked middle-aged and older participants about issues like these:

  • Frequency of trouble falling asleep
  • Waking during the night
  • Waking too early in the morning
  • Not being able to go back to sleep again
  • Not feeling rested upon awakening

The study also surveyed participants on their use of health services, including hospitalizations, home health care services or nursing home stays.

“We found that there was a statistically significant relationship between the report of insomnia symptoms and the future use of costly health services,” said Christopher Kaufmann, a doctoral student with the Bloomberg School’s Department of Mental Health. The study recommended treating and monitoring insomnia in middle-aged and older adults as a way to potentially improve overall health.

Fighting insomnia

Insomnia has many potential causes, according to the National Institutes of Health, ranging from depression to Alzheimer’s disease. The NIH describes insomnia as more common in women than men and more likely in older adults than in younger individuals.

If insomnia is linked to health problems, what can we do about it? It turns out you can do a lot! The Mayo Clinic suggests several lifestyle changes that may help the elder get a sound night of sleep, for example:

  1. Keep a consistent sleep schedule.
  2. Relax before bedtime through a warm bath, massage or calming ritual.
  3. Avoid or limit naps.
  4. Make the room conducive to sleep, such as making it dark and a cool temperature.
  5. Eliminate technology (television, computer) from the bedroom.
  6. Exercise for 20-30 minutes at least 5-6 hours before bedtime.
  7. Avoid or limit caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
  8. Try not to consume large meals and beverages prior to bedtime.

If these tips don’t help, the Mayo Clinic describes a variety of possible behavioral therapies and medications that may work.

What can a caregiver do?

To help a loved one seek a solution to sleep issues, a caregiver should be sure to talk to the elder’s doctor to get recommendations. You can ask about current medications to see if they could be contributing to insomnia. And with the OK from health care providers, pain relievers could be administered if necessary to control pain. Ask if there may be other issues contributing to insomnia, such as sleep apnea.

Sleeping well is vital not only for elders but for caregivers as well. I’ve written about the importance of sleep and I also explored how sleeping position might play a role in physical well-being. My blog post on a possible link between sleep loss and memory loss also mentioned some additional ideas for a better night’s sleep.

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