Lying awake for 30 minutes or longer and spending a smaller percentage of the night asleep boost the risk of death among older adults, according to Mary Amanda Dew, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and colleagues.
Older adults who sleep poorly tend to have a diminished quality of life and use health services more frequently, but the study by Dew and colleagues suggests that sleep disturbances can have a much more serious effect on health.
"Interventions that optimize or protect sleep initiation and sleep quality in old age might not only add quality of life but prolong life as well," Dew says.
In eight different studies between 1981 and 1997, the researchers used EEG monitors to observe sleep patterns in 185 healthy adults 60 to 90 years old. Dew and colleagues then collected follow-up information to find which study participants had died by the year 2001.
The 66 adults who had died were more likely in the earlier sleep studies to lie awake for long periods, to sleep less "efficiently" through the night and to have abnormally high or low amounts of REM sleep, compared to study participants who were still living at the time of follow-up.
The link between poor sleep and earlier death remains significant even after adjusting for the influence of age, gender and existing health problems, the researchers note.
It is still unclear how sleep pattern differences might translate into biological changes that can affect the risk of death or if sleep disturbance even cause these changes at all, say Dew and colleagues. Adult sleep disturbances might be outward signs of changes in brain function that are themselves somehow related to death, they suggest.
The study is published in the January/February issue of Psychosomatic Medicine and supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Aging.
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