- New research indicates that sleeping fewer than five hours is linked with multimorbidity in older adults.
- Sleeping less has previously been associated with the added risk of developing certain chronic conditions.
- Sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome are common among older people.
- Experts suggest seeing a medical professional if your sleep quality has declined.
- Improving your sleep may help keep you healthier as you grow older.
Adults over the age of 50 who sleep fewer than five hours per night are more likely to develop multiple chronic diseases, says a new study published in the journal PLOS Medicine.
This was compared to people in the same age group who slept seven hours.
According to the study’s lead author, Séverine Sabia, previous studies have demonstrated a link between sleeping less and developing conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and dementia.
“However, in real life, chronic diseases often coexist,” said Sabia, “particularly at older ages, and it remained unclear how sleep duration was associated with risk of multimorbidity.”
Sabia and her team took data from a cohort study that began in 1985. The information examined included self-reported sleep duration when the participants were 50, 60, and 70 years old.
At the age of 50, there were 7,864 healthy participants. Among those who reported sleeping fewer than five hours, there was a 30% greater risk of developing multiple chronic health conditions compared to the people who slept seven hours a night.
By the age of 60, this risk had risen to 32%.
At 70 years of age, the risk increased even more to 40%.
Shorter sleep at the age of 50 was also associated with a 25% greater risk of dying, mostly because of the increased risk of chronic disease.
As people reached the ages of 60 and 70, the researchers found that sleeping nine hours or more was linked with higher rates of multimorbidity.
However, there were only a few people this was true for, and the greater need for sleep could have been due to the illnesses themselves.
Lourdes DelRosso, PhD, who is an associate professor of neurology at the University of Washington, explained that previous research has shown an association between short sleep and several areas, including cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease, and psychiatric illness.
“This current work contributes and adds to the existing body of evidence by finding the association between short sleep and multimorbidity — something not previously demonstrated,” DelRosso said.
However, long-term effects aside, DelRosso said there are also immediate consequences when we don’t get enough sleep, such as daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and poor performance.
David Kuhlmann, MD, who is Medical Director, Sleep Medicine at Bothwell Regional Health Center in Sedalia, Missouri, said that the focus of older adults should be on assessing their sleep.
For example, is it the same quality of sleep that it used to be? Are they able to fall asleep and stay asleep as they did before?
“It may not seem like a big deal to them that they are perhaps not sleeping as much at night as they once did; however, the research now coming out is showing that it may be worse to one’s health than they might think,” he said.
Kuhlmann says if older adults are getting five or fewer hours of sleep per night, they should think about seeing a medical professional.
“Getting poor sleep is associated with chronic health problems, and improved sleep may lead to better control of those health problems,” he noted.
Girardin Jean-Louis, PhD, director of the Center for Translational Sleep and Circadian Sciences (TSCS) and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, added that it could be helpful to society at large if we can conquer the diseases often associated with old age.
“Multimorbidity has remained a daunting challenge, associated with high healthcare costs, including routine clinic visits, hospitalizations, and potential disability,” said Jean-Louis. “If it can be shown that improved sleep duration and quality could alleviate this medical and societal burden, this could benefit us all.”
Jean-Louis further pointed out the need to recognize disparities among minority groups.
“Conditions comprising the metabolic syndrome (i.e., obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and dyslipidemia), which are more prevalent among members of minoritized groupings, could be triggered by poor sleep …,” he explained.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), there are things that older adults can do to get better sleep.
One important step is to consider whether you have a sleep disorder. They cite insomnia, snoring, sleep apnea, and movement disorders like restless legs syndrome as being the sleep problems that most commonly affect older people.
Among these, they say insomnia is the most frequent sleep complaint. This can include taking a long time to fall asleep, waking up during the night, and waking up feeling tired.
They note that snoring is also very common, affecting 40% of all adults.
Both snoring and sleep apnea, a condition where a person periodically stops breathing during sleep, can interfere with getting a good night’s sleep. Sleep apnea can also increase a person’s risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and cognitive problems.
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is also common among older people, occurring in over 20% of those over the age of 80, according to AASM. People with RLS can experience sensations in their legs like tingling, pins and needles, or crawling, which can make it difficult to sleep well.
AASM suggests that if you are often tired during the day and aren’t sleeping as well as you used to, it’s a good idea to see your primary care doctor for a checkup. They will be able to provide you with a diagnosis and offer suggestions for the management and treatment of your sleep problems.