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By Megan DuBois, Tisa Pavlovcic, and Alec Kirtley (St. Olaf College)
For aging adults, declining quality of sleep and difficulty sleeping through the night are common problems. Sleep is an essential biological process, and good sleep is important to our overall mental and physical wellbeing. Researchers find that changes in circadian rhythm, the body's internal clock for cycles like eating and sleeping, can cause changes as we age. Some of these changes include:
- Overall decreases in sleep duration and quality (Ohayon, Carskadon, Guilleminault, & Vitiello, 2004; Wolkove, Elkholy, Baltzan, & Palayew, 2007).
- An increase in sleep disorders, such as insomnia, after age 60 (Wolkove et al., 2007).
- An increase in symptoms of mood and anxiety disorders (Wilckens et al., 2014).
Poor Sleep Harms Cognitive Processes
In addition, the resulting poor sleep quality is often associated with decreased cognitive function in older adults (Wilckens et al., 2014; Blackwell et al., 2014).
- Individuals with interrupted sleep quality were more likely to report word finding difficulties and troubles with memory.
- Individuals who reported waking more often in the night found that their disrupted sleep cycles were associated with decreased memory consolidation and language function.
Do you find yourself experiencing these sleep troubles?
Fear not! These five tips may help improve sleep quality for older adults and fight the drawbacks of poor sleep!
Self-relaxation, a combination of progressive muscle relaxation and meditation, is reported to improve sleep duration and efficiency, in addition to general well-being and cognitive function. (Sun, Kang, Wang, & Zeng, 2013). In fact, daily training for intentional muscle relaxation and visualization led to improvements in memory when compared to a control group who did not engage in these self-relaxation behaviors. This practice is great because it's easy to do regardless of your physical activity level or time constraints.
Yoga, a physical and mental exercise focused on meditation, controlled breathing, and intentional postures, is widely accepted to be beneficial for body and the mind. Yoga can have a positive influence on several aspects of sleep among older adults as well. One study found that older adults who either practiced yoga once a day for a month or once a week for three months showed improved quality of sleep (Hariprasad et al., 2013). The participants reported falling asleep earlier, sleeping longer, and waking up better rested – all reasons to give it a shot!
3. Tai Chi:
Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese mind-body exercise and popular approach for decreasing the negative effects of sleeping disorders. One review found multiple studies that connected Tai Chi to small short-term improvements and large long-term improvements in sleep quality (Du et al., 2015). These improvements are attributed to several features of Tai Chi, such as slow-movements and relaxation. Plus, Tai Chi increases energy consumption, endorphin production (the chemical which causes a runner's high), and body temperature – all factors associated with better sleep (Yang, Ho, Chen, & Chien, 2012).
4. Aerobic Exercise:
Aerobic exercise includes any form of physical activity that gets you moving and increases heart rate. One study found that insomniac older adults involved in a 16-week aerobic exercise course not only showed improved self-reported mood and sleep quality, but reported on average an extra 1.25 hours of sleep per night. (Reid et al., 2010). The researchers estimate that one of the biggest reasons for this improvement was an increase in their vitality, or pep in their step.
Afternoon naps can be as beneficial as a good night's rest. One study explored self-reported sleep habits and other measurements of cognitive function in older Chinese adults, and found that people who napped between 30 and 90 minutes a day showed better overall cognition (Li et al., 2017). Plus – according to the participants' self-reports – afternoon napping didn't affect the duration of night-time sleep (Li et al., 2017).
Have you tried any of these practices that could improve sleep? Have they been helpful for you? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!
If you're interested in learning more, check out this websites:
For more info on healthy aging, check out these resources from APA’s Office on Aging:
- Older Adults’ Health and Age-Related Changes: Reality vs. Myth
- Life Plan for the Life Span
- Prolonging Vitality
Alec Kirtley is a Junior Psychology major at St. Olaf College. He currently studies the sound localization of Ormia ochracea a species of fly. He hopes to study neuroscience after graduation.
Tisa Pavlovcic is a junior international student pursuing a degree in Psychology and Exercise Science at St. Olaf College. Although undecided about her career path, she hopes to help rehabilitate people one day.
Megan DuBois is a junior Psychology and American Studies major at St. Olaf College. She hopes to pursue graduate school in psychology and work with children.
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Du, S., Dong, J., Zhang, H., Jin, S., Xu, G., Liu, Z., . . . Sun, Z. (2015). Taichi exercise for self-rated sleep quality in older people: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 52(1), 368-379.
Hariprasad, V., Sivakumar, P., Koparde, V., Varambally, S., Thirthalli, J., Varghese, M., . . . Gangadhar, B. (2013). Effects of yoga intervention on sleep and quality-of-life in elderly: A randomized controlled trial. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(Suppl 3), S364.
Li, J., Cacchione, P. Z., Hodgson, N., Riegel, B., Keenan, B. T., Scharf, M. T., . . . Gooneratne, S. (2017). Afternoon Napping and Cognition in Chinese Older Adults: Findings from the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study Baseline Assessment. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 65(2), 373-380.
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Reid, K. J., Baron, K. G., Lu, B., Naylor, E., Wolfe, L., & Zee, P. C. (2010). Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. Sleep Medicine, 11(9), 934-940.
Sun, J., Kang, J., Wang, P., & Zeng, H. (2013). Self?relaxation training can improve sleep quality and cognitive functions in the older: A one?year randomised controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 22(9-10), 1270-1280.
Wilckens, K. A., Woo, S. G., Kirk, A. R., Erickson, K. I., & Wheeler, M. E. (2014). Role of sleep continuity and total sleep time in executive function across the adult lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 29(3), 658.
Wolkove, N., Elkholy, O., Baltzan, M., & Palayew, M. (2007). Sleep and aging: 1. Sleep disorders commonly found in older people. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 176(9), 1299.
Yang, P.-Y., Ho, K.-H., Chen, H.-C., & Chien, M.-Y. (2012). Exercise training improves sleep quality in middle-aged and older adults with sleep problems: a systematic review. Journal of Physiotherapy, 58(3), 157-163. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S1836-9553(12)70106-6
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