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Lack of Sleep Dangerous for Those Over 50

Happy Sleepy Head
Less than five hours of sleep is dangerous for those over fifty. Credit: Tyrin Price. CC-BY-SA-2.0/Flickr

Lack of sleep is dangerous for those over fifty, researchers have discovered. The finding was made during a study focused on a group of almost eight thousand civil servants in the UK who showed no signs of chronic illness at the age of fifty.

They were asked how much sleep they got on an average weeknight. Some wore a sleep tracker as well. They were then asked to report their answers every four to five years over a twenty-five year period. The findings were astounding.

Lack of sleep dangerous for those over 50

What the study found was that lack of sleep was dangerous for those fifty years of age and over. In that age group, for example, individuals who got five hours of sleep or less had a thirty percent risk increase of suffering from multiple illnesses in comparison to those subjects who slept more than seven hours on an average weeknight. There was also a significant connection between the subjects at the age of fifty who had less than five hours of sleep and a higher risk of death. At sixty, there was a thirty-two percent increase of negative consequences, and, at seventy, the risk was almost forty percent.

Illnesses that posed a greater risk in direct relation to the amount of sleep the subject got were diabetes, heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Lack of sleep also led to an increase in the risk of chronic kidney disease, liver disease, depression, dementia, mental disorders, Parkinson’s, and arthritis as determined by the study.

In addition, research has shown that individuals who do not get enough sleep—meaning at least seven to nine hours—also have a much higher risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity and high blood pressure. This was, in any case, the finding of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What the study could not prove—as it was not the focus of the current study—is if those who did get more sleep were at a lower risk of negative health consequences. Another limitation is the fact that most of those tested were white men with only a third of research subjects being women. Sleep apnea is another problem many suffer from, but the study did not address this.

Why the right amount of sleep is important for everyone

Sleeping man
Sleeping man. Vincent WR. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0/Flickr

The right amount of sleep is important for everyone and not only those aged fifty or over. As the study showed, “Short sleep duration in midlife and old age is associated with higher risk of onset of chronic disease and multimorbidity.”

Likewise, study findings “support the promotion of good sleep hygiene on both primary and secondary prevention by targeting behavioral and environmental conditions that affect sleep duration and quality.”

Such affirmations are particularly relevant today given the extended length of life. Sharon Cobb, who has conducted sleep research but was not involved in the particular study, said:

“I think for a long time, we’ve stressed that you need your sleep. But now we’re starting to really push forward. There’s more literature coming out that sleep can affect more than just mental health. It’s also affecting more comorbidities.”

Cobb, the director of prelicensure nursing programs and associate professor at the Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, pointed out that quality is important as well. This, unfortunately, was not a point of focus of the study. Yet, we know from past studies that getting enough quality sleep is also the key to increased longevity.

Why are people sleeping less?

If the quantity and quality of sleep is important, then why are people getting less of it? That is the question Surrey Sleep Research Centre Director Derk-Jan Dijk had.

“The big question is why…some people sleep less,” he said. “What is causing it and is there anything we can do about it? Sleep is a modifiable lifestyle factor to a certain extent.”

Sleep, scientists have shown, helps the processing of memories and improves mood, concentration, and metabolism. Indeed, it is one of the only ways for the brain to get rid of excess information. It is also a process that restores, produces, and regulates hormones in the body, according to Adam Knowlden, associate professor of health and science at the University of Alabama.

“Often, people see the need to sleep as an inconvenience,” he said. “They think to get the most out of life, they need to deprive themselves of sleep to get ahead or to be more social, but it’s really the other way around. Most of the research shows your quality of life actually improves if you get sufficient sleep.”

Knowlden’s recommendations for a good night of sleep, therefore, are as follows: a dark bedroom, regular exercise, and no caffeine, alcohol, or big meals before bedtime. Another tip would be to not take one’s cell phone to bed.  All in all, what past and present research has provided is the key to preventing an increase in illness with age and a better quality of life for those aged fifty and over.

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