Study Finds Link Between Chronic Sleep Issues and Disabilities Later in Life

A recent study has found that chronic sleep issues may be linked with a greater risk for disabilities later in life.

According to the American Geriatrics Society, nearly one in five seniors has at least one impediment in performing daily tasks. Despite the fact that disability rates have been decreasing overall, the lifetime probability in developing a disability of daily living or becoming cognitively impaired for those aged 65 and older hovers around 68%.

Prior research has linked a lack of sleep with poor quality of health, but this recent study aimed to illuminate how sleep issues affect the ability to function on a daily basis. Instead of focusing just on senior citizens, the study used a data pool of 3,620 people between ages 24 and 75. The subjects were surveyed from 1995-1996 and again in 2004-2006.
Within the study, participants provided answers about any sleep issues they had experienced over the past year, as well as their capability to complete tasks like walking, running, bathing, dressing, bending over, completing chores, and climbing stairs.

In both sets of surveys, it was reported that 11% of participants experienced sleep issues. Those with sleep issues were 55% more likely to experience greater limits on their daily activities — like bathing, dressing, and walking — in the later survey than those with good sleeping habits. They were also 28% more likely to have issues with instrumental tasks like bending over, doing chores, climbing stairs, and running.

Researchers focused on other potential causes of these issues, including location, weight, whether the participants smoked, and other health factors. Age notably had no effect on the changes between the two surveys, but younger and middle-aged participants with sleep issues saw the biggest declines in physical abilities.

One possible explanation for the findings is that when sleep is not restful and rejuvenating, a person is less likely to be active during waking hours. Since poor physical activity and a sedentary lifestyle are linked as risk factors for disability, this may very well serve as the link.

Expert Dr. Andrew Lim of the University of Toronto, who was not involved in the study, states that being able to target specific aspects of poor sleep — like insomnia, snoring, sleep apnea, or restless leg synrome — may be helpful in exploring this link further. Poor sleeping habits can also be linked to joint pain, mental illness, and heart disease, all of which could also represent underlying causes of disabilities later in life.

In order to adapt a healthier sleep routine, Dr. Lim suggests avoidance of caffeine and alcohol, as well as keeping a regular schedule and taking the time to unplug and wind down before bed. Being able to obtain better sleep has an assortment of potential health benefits. If you’re one of those people who believes that “you can sleep when you’re dead,” you might want to rethink your approach if you want to lead a long, productive life.

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