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Disturbed sleep is prevalent in widowed seniors

WESTCHESTER, Ill. Widowed seniors are more likely to have disrupted sleep when studied at least four months after the loss event, according to a research abstract that will be presented on Wednesday at SLEEP 2008, the 22nd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS).

The study, authored by Timothy H. Monk, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, focused on 28 spousally bereaved seniors aged 60 years and older, who underwent a laboratory study of sleep and circadian rhythms. Measures taken included two nights of polysomnography, 36 hours of continuous core body temperature monitoring, and four assessments of mood and alertness throughout a day. Preceding the laboratory study, two-week diaries were completed, allowing the assessment of lifestyle regularity and the timing of sleep. Also assessed was grief, depression, and sleep quality.

According to the results, grief was still present. Sleep was subjectively poor, short and fairly inefficient. There was a slight trend for higher grief to be associated with less time spent asleep and with reduced alertness.

For most people, spousal bereavement is the most devastating life event that they will ever experience, said Dr. Monk. It happens in the lives of more than 800,000 older Americans every year. In our study, we found significant sleep disruption in spousally bereaved seniors. However, this disruption does not appear to be due to bereavement-related disruptions in the circadian system, although grief related differences in the time of day effect in alertness were apparent. Daily lifestyle regularity was slightly reduced in the bereaved group relative to non-bereaved seniors, but it did not differ by grief severity.

Not sleeping well can lead to a number of problems. Older adults who have poor nighttime sleep are more likely to have a depressed mood, attention and memory problems, excessive daytime sleepiness, more nighttime falls and use more over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids. In addition, recent studies associate lack of sleep with serious health problems such as an increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

While most people require seven to eight hours of sleep a night to perform optimally the next day, older adults might find this harder to obtain. Older adults must be more aware of their sleep and maintain good sleep hygiene by following these tips:

  • Establishing a routine sleep schedule.

  • Avoiding utilizing bed for activities other than sleep or intimacy.

  • Avoiding substances that disturb your sleep, like alcohol or caffeine.

  • Not napping during the day. If you must snooze, limit the time to less than one hour and no later than 3 p.m.

  • Stick to rituals that help you relax each night before bed. This can include such things as a warm bath, a light snack or a few minutes of reading.

  • Dont take your worries to bed. Bedtime is a time to relax, not to hash out the stresses of the day.

  • If you cant fall asleep, leave your bedroom and engage in a quiet activity. Return to bed only when you are tired.

  • Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and a little cool.

Although sleep patterns change as people age, disturbed sleep and waking up tired every day are not part of normal aging. Those who have trouble sleeping are advised to see a sleep specialist at a facility accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).


Contact: Kathleen McCann
American Academy of Sleep Medicine

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