Aging brings a myriad of physical and mental changes including altered amounts and patterns of sleep. Older people have the same sleep needs as when they were younger but they have more difficulty falling and staying asleep and do not sleep as deeply. In addition, aging individuals wake more often during sleep, tend to go to sleep and wake earlier than when they were younger. There is also an increase in sleep disorders, including insomnia and 44% of the elderly report at least occasional problems with insomnia.
Sleep problems are more than just an irritant. Sleep deprivation is associated with decreased alertness and a consequent reduction in performance of even simple tasks, increased difficulties with memory and problem solving, decreases quality of life, increase likelihood of accidental injury including automobile accidents, and increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It also places stress on relationships, affecting the sleep of the older individuals sleep partner.
Hence, it is clear that getting a good night’s sleep is important for everyone. But for the elderly it’s more difficult to get it. So, anything that could assist older people to sleep better would help the individual to age healthier with a better quality of life. Mindfulness has been found to be associated with healthy aging (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/age-healthily-mindfulness/).
Mindfulness can also be helpful with sleep problems. Indeed, meditation has been shown to be effective for the treatment of insomnia in adults (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/mindfulness-is-a-snooze/). But, the elderly are different and it is not known if meditation might also help them to sleep better.
In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment among Older Adults with Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial”
Black and colleagues demonstrate that meditation can improve sleep quality in people over 55 years of age. They found that meditation increased the quality of sleep and the degree of improvement was related to the degree of increase in mindfulness produced. Meditation also resulted in less insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, and depression and less interference in daily living produced by fatigue. These findings are very exciting and suggest that meditation may be an effective intervention to improve sleep in the elderly.
Sleep problems are associated with a high level of physiological arousal. Meditation has been shown to reduce the hormonal and neural systems that underlie arousal and reduces responses to stress (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/destress-with-mindfulness/). This could be one mechanism by which meditation improves sleep. Also sleep disturbance is often associated with psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, worry and rumination. Meditation is also known to reduce these processes. Indeed, Black and colleagues demonstrated reductions in depression with meditation in older individuals (see also http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/dealing-with-major-depression-when-drugs-fail/) and mindfulness is known to reduce anxiety (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/the-mindfulness-cure-for-social-anxiety/) and worry (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/stop-worrying/) This may be another potential mechanism by which mindfulness improves sleep.
Regardless of the mechanism, it is clear that meditation improves sleep in older individuals. Since meditation is relatively safe and easy to perform and has become more and more common and acceptable in modern western cultures, it would seem to be an ideal solution to the sleep problems of the elderly.
So, meditate and sleep better as you age.
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies