heart health and sleep

How Sleep Affects Heart Health and Seniors

Heart health is an important topic for seniors. About 630,000 Americans die from heart disease each year. It’s the leading cause of death among older adults, and the most frequent medical condition affecting them.

When it comes to improving and protecting heart health, the focus is usually on improving diet and exercise while eliminating unhealthy habits. But there’s another important factor that doesn’t get nearly enough attention: sleep.

According to new research published in Experimental Physiology, “habitual short sleep duration” can have a negative impact on heart health.

How Sleep Affects Heart Health in Seniors

The goal of the research published in Experimental Physiology was to determine whether there was a link between “habitual short sleep duration” (sleeping less than seven hours per night) and “specific inflammation and vascular‐related microRNAs.”

MicroRNAs are tiny, non-coding RNA molecules that assist in the regulation of vascular health. These molecules are also an indication of heart health.

The study looked at 24 adults: 12 with short sleep duration and 12 with normal sleep duration. Researchers found that circulating levels of certain microRNAs were much lower in those with short sleep compared to the normal sleep group.

Changes to microRNAs have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and vascular dysfunction.

Seniors and Insomnia

Getting adequate sleep is important to a person’s overall health and well-being, but many seniors struggle to fall or stay asleep. Sleep trouble can make it difficult to reach the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep each night.

Studies have found that one in four Americans suffer from insomnia each year for a number of reasons. Most individuals eventually return to a normal sleeping pattern within a year, but 20% of individuals will continue to suffer with poor sleeping habits.

In seniors, insomnia is a very common condition, affecting nearly 50% of people aged 60 and older, according to the National Institute of Health.

Causes of Insomnia in Seniors

While insomnia can be a primary condition for some seniors, it’s more often a secondary disorder that stems from another health condition. The most common causes include:

  • Poor sleep habits: Many seniors do not have optimal sleeping environments. Poor behaviors and pre-sleep habits can also make it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Anxiety and stress: Everyday life stresses, deaths of loved ones, or other significant life changes can cause anxiety and stress that makes it difficult to sleep.
  • Stimulants: When caffeine, nicotine and other stimulants are consumed too close to bed time, it can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Irregular sleep cycles: Traveling, jet lag or keeping an erratic schedule can disrupt the body’s internal clock.
  • Alcohol consumption: Alcohol can have a sedating effect that promotes sleep initially, but disrupts REM and makes sleep more fragmented.
  • Depression: It’s common for seniors to suffer from depression, and insomnia is a common symptom of depression. SAD is especially common in the winter months.
  • Pain: Chronic pain, such as that caused by osteoporosis or arthritis, can cause physical pain that makes it difficult to sleep.
  • Frequent urination: Waking up several times at night to use the restroom can result in poor sleep quality.
  • Sleep Apnea: Sleep Apnea can have serious consequences to your health. If you suffer from chronic snoring you should consult your physician.

How Seniors can Improve Their Sleep Quality

Improving sleep quality can improve a senior’s overall well-being, but as the new research shows, it can also help improve heart health.

If an underlying medical condition is causing sleep disruption, treating or addressing that underlying cause should be the first step. Seniors can work with their doctors to treat the problem, and hopefully, the insomnia resolves itself.

But seniors can also employ preventative and treatment measures. Proper sleep hygiene is a great place to start. Healthy sleep habits include:

  • Keeping a regular sleep/wake schedule.
  • Engaging in activities that promote relaxation before bed, such as a listening to calming music or taking a warm shower.
  • Optimizing the sleep environment. Ideally, the room should be quiet, dark, safe and comfortable.
  • Exercising early in the day – no later than 4 hours before bed.
  • Avoiding caffeine and other stimulants before bed.
  • Not eating spicy meals or heavy meals before bed.
  • Avoiding activities in bed that may induce anxiety, such as reading, working or watching television.
  • Limiting naps during the day.

Depending on the severity of the insomnia, doctors may recommend sleeping pills. There are also over-the-counter sleep aids, such as those that contain melatonin.