When it comes to sleep, are you a lark or a night owl? It turns out, according to a recent research study in Great Britain that was the topic of this article on the BBC website, that those of you who fall into the “late to bed, late to rise” group may be putting your health at risk, but not necessarily because you simply prefer to stay up late. The health risks are more complex, and they apply to seniors along with everyone else.
The BBC article is reporting on a wide-ranging study in the United Kingdom that tracked more than 430,000 adults over a 6-plus year period. Study subjects ranged between about age 40 and 73. The scientific study (you’ll find a link here) isn’t easy reading, but if you wade through the scientific jargon you’ll find some disturbing evidence to suggest that people of all ages who stay up late at night and arise later in the morning have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders than their early-to-bed-early-to-rise peers.
“Increased risk of early death, psychological disorders and respiratory illness were the stark findings from the paper, which backed up other research suggesting late-nighters are more likely to suffer ill health,” the BBC article reports. “But is being a night owl really bad for you and does it mean some of us should ditch the late nights and lie-ins to become more like morning larks?” The answer to that question is mixed.
Genes Affect Sleep Patterns
Contrary to what we might think, the tendency to be an evening person or a morning person may not be entirely a matter of habit. “When we want to sleep and wake is not just a habit, nor is it a sign of discipline,” reports the BBC. “Instead, it is influenced by our body clocks, about 50 percent of which is determined by our genes.” Sleep scientists believe the other half of the equation is shaped by a combination of environment and age. We reach our “peak age of lateness,” to use the BBC term, at about age 20. After that our body clock tends to get progressively earlier the older we get, until as seniors it is generally assumed we’ll tend to go to bed earlier, wake up earlier, and sleep less soundly in between.
We visited the website of the National Institute on Aging to find out how this sleep issue might affect seniors, who, according to the British study, are more prone than younger people to health problems caused by poor sleep patterns – including the tendency to stay up late and sleep in. “Older adults need about the same amount of sleep as all adults—7 to 9 hours each night,” says the Institute’s recommendations. But as we mentioned above, “older people tend to go to sleep earlier and get up earlier than they did when they were younger.” There are several reasons why seniors can become sleep-deprived, chief among them being health problems that can trigger sleep-robbing physical pain. It’s also true that some medications or drug combinations are sleep-inhibiting. “No matter the reason,” says the NIA, lack of sleep can trigger obvious problems like irritability or loss of balance – but getting too little sleep is also linked to seniors feeling depressed and even experiencing cognitive problems that can be misdiagnosed as early signs of dementia.
Regular Sleep Habits Recommended
We found an interesting connection between the BBC article about health problems among night owls and the National Institute on Aging’s advice for seniors who need better sleep. One of the key bits of advice for seniors involves “sleep regularity,” which implies that you should follow a regular sleep schedule and “go to sleep and get up at the same time each day, even on weekends or when you are traveling,” says the Institute. But this absence of regular sleep habits is precisely the problem for many night owls, especially those who are forced five days a week to get up early for work even when they go to bed late. They tend to try to make up for lost sleep time by sleeping in on weekends, and as a result their bodies never develop the type of consistent sleep schedule that is best for optimum health. They’re forever playing catch-up when it comes to healthy sleep.
Another sleep-killer that is common to restless seniors and to regular night owls is the use of electronic devices late at night, especially in the bedroom. The blue-spectrum light from most televisions, smart phones, and computer screens is known to mess up the body’s normal adjustment to evening light in a way that makes falling asleep that much harder. One way to train your body to feel sleepy earlier involves getting more natural sunlight early in the morning and avoiding artificial light late at night: this helps adjust the body’s sleep rhythm. The BBC-reported study also agrees with the NIA recommendations that some behaviors associated with staying up late – eating large meals late at night, drinking alcohol, even excess smoking – are not only bad for your sleep, they’re bad for your overall health. The British study seems to imply that it is precisely these risk factors, and not merely whether someone prefers a later bedtime, that account in part for the poor health outcomes among night owls compared with their lark counterparts.
Choose the Right Doctor
If you are a senior who is chronically sleep-deprived, or if this describes a loved one, it’s no joke. Lack of sleep has been associated with maladies ranging from colon cancer to heart disease to digestive ailments, and there is also a general linkage between lack of sleep and a shorter life span. Here at AgingOptions our strong recommendation for our senior friends is to consult a geriatric physician to find out the best way to correct sleep deprivation. A regular physician may simply prescribe a sleeping pill, which may not only be dangerous but also masks underlying issues that may be keeping you awake. A geriatrician is trained in the health issues of seniors and he or she can spend the time it takes to diagnose and treat the real cause of your sleep issues. Contact us at AgingOptions and we can refer you to a geriatrician near you.
We also hope you’ll accept our invitation to find out more about planning for your future when it comes to retirement. Here at AgingOptions we’ll never dish out “one size fits all” answers to retirement questions. Instead, our goal is to walk you through a process we call LifePlanning, in which financial, medical, housing, legal and family components of retirement are all woven together into one seamless plan that ensures you will be able to protect your assets as you age and avoid becoming a burden to those you love. Come join Rajiv Nagaich soon at an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar – at no cost whatsoever – and find out more. For dates, times and locations, visit our Live Events page and sign up for the seminar of your choice.
Don’t lose sleep over your lack of retirement planning! We’ll see you soon at an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar.
(originally reported at www.bbc.com)