Recently, a sleep-related story took center stage on the cover of Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association. “Sleeping Well, Staying Healthy” is an article detailing the many ways that sleep – or the lack of it – impacts us over a lifetime. The short-term effects of sleep deprivation are pretty clear and well-documented. But the implications of a life of insomnia are more of a mystery. With a focus on psychology, this expose tells us what recent research has revealed about the importance of sleep as we age.

The Perfect Period
The magical range of 7-8 hours of nightly sleep is ubiquitous in the cultural conversation about rest. But what does it mean? Do people just feel better? Are they more focused or in better shape? It turns out they actually live longer. The quantity and quality of sleep a person gets seem to be directly linked to the number and quality of years they will live. Getting too much or too little sleep is connected to everything from workplace performance to heart disease, including cancer, inflammation, obesity, and diabetes.

A Compounding Problem
One of the areas commonly investigated by researchers is the relationship between sleep and aging. Since sleep troubles are often associated with health problems, and health issues multiply as we age, older adults tend to have more difficulty getting high-quality sleep. Pain, illness, and more frequent bathroom trips interrupt deep sleep, and persistent interruptions over time can evolve into sleep disorders. Even in the absence of a disorder, sleep patterns continue to change throughout a person’s lifespan. According to the article, the circadian clock ages, and that’s what causes older adults to go to bed early and wake up in the wee hours of morning.

The Positive Perspective
Here’s the good news. Researchers have concluded that “maintaining good sleep quality in young adulthood and middle age is likely to protect against age-related decline in later years.” Sleep problems are characteristic of many disorders, including Alzheimer’s. Since sleep deprivation prevents certain biological processes from occurring, it may actually play a role in the development of these disorders. Thus, getting adequate restorative sleep over the course of a lifetime may very well reduce risk for cognitive decline. Lack of sleep isn’t the only factor in any of these health problems, but if it has the power to mitigate risk, many will be thankful to have another natural tool for fighting disease.

Psychology can help.
The role played by sleep in overall health and wellness seems to grow by the day. But with so many people plagued by sleep disorders, the results of research can look bleak. We know we need more sleep, and better sleep, but getting it isn’t so easy. Fortunately, psychologists are finding ways to intervene. A specialized form of cognitive behavioral therapy called CBT-I has shown great promise as a first-line treatment for insomnia. By addressing how a patient thinks about insomnia, CBT-I can help to solve the vicious cycle of sleep loss and the worry that comes with it. Even if your therapist doesn’t have training in CBT-I, they may be able to help you address the harmful effects of inadequate sleep. By merely challenging our beliefs, therapists can help us get better perspective on problems – including the ones that involve sleep.

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