Unrelated Sleep Problems Compound Health Problems of Older America – New National Sleep Foundation Poll Contradicts Commonly Held Beliefs about Sleep in Older Adults
SEATTLE, April 1, 2003 -- While some older adults are very healthy and have normal sleep patterns, frequent untreated sleep problems may be interfering with the ability of many others to cope with chronic medical conditions, according to a poll released today by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).
Exploding many common myths that associate poor sleep and less sleep with aging, the 2003 Sleep in America poll shows that older adults typically do not sleep less than their younger counterparts, averaging about seven hours of sleep each night. However, it also finds that some 37 million older Americans suffer from frequent sleep problems that if left untreated, can complicate the treatment of a host of common, serious age-related medical conditions, from arthritis to diabetes, heart and lung disease and depression. Poor sleep is also associated with three other problems affecting many older adults: bodily pain, excess weight and ambulatory restrictions, such as difficulty walking or going up and down stairs.
"The 2003 Sleep in America poll indicates that poor health and not age is a major reason why many older people in this country report sleep problems, providing an important wake up call that identifying and treating these sleep problems must be a priority concern," said Richard L. Gelula, NSF's executive director. "The fact that a person is 60 or 70 years old doesn't preclude the possibility of sleeping well and benefiting from this restorative process to remain vital and active. That's why we must drive home the message that sleeping well is vital to aging well."
Marking the Foundation's first effort to look at the sleep habits and patterns of America's older adults - those between the ages of 55 and 84 - NSF's 2003 Sleep in America poll finds a direct association between the number of diagnosed medical conditions that older adults report and the quality of their sleep. The more medical conditions, the more sleep problems.
However, NSF's new poll shows that poor sleep among older adults often goes unnoticed by the medical community. Although the majority of older adults (67 percent) report frequent sleep problems, only a small fraction (one in eight) says his or her sleep problems have been diagnosed. This means of the 37 million older adults reporting sleep problems, only about seven million have been diagnosed, leaving 30 million to count sheep. NSF is urging the medical community to treat sleep as an integral part of disease management, especially in older patients.
"In spite of the emerging science linking sleep and health, only a small fraction of the many reported sleep complaints of older adults are actually diagnosed and treated," says NSF President, James K. Walsh, Ph.D. "The 2003 Sleep in America poll reinforces the position that sleep problems should not be viewed as an aspect of normal aging, and they can significantly increase the overall burden of illness on patients," Walsh adds. Dr. Walsh is Executive Director and Senior Scientist of the Sleep Medicine and Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield, Mo.
Ralph Pascualy, M.D., director of Swedish Medical Center's Sleep Medicine Institute, noted that the poll findings provide an important message for patients as well. "It is important that everyone, but especially older adults, pay closer attention to any symptoms that disturb their sleep, and discuss those symptoms with a health-care provider." The Swedish Sleep Medicine Institute works with NSF as a Community Sleep Awareness Partner® to raise awareness about the importance of sleep and the treatment of sleep disorders.
Sleep and Health for Older Americans
NSF's 2003 Sleep in America poll shows that inadequate sleep is clearly associated with many of the major diseases prevalent in older adults. Of special significance, the poll links ongoing sleep problems with 82 percent of those who report being diagnosed with depression, 81 percent who have suffered a stroke, 76 percent diagnosed with heart disease, and 75 percent diagnosed with lung disease. Sleep problems are also a factor for 72 percent of older adults diagnosed with diabetes or arthritis, and 71 percent of those who have been diagnosed with hypertension.
Sleep problems are especially acute among those older adults who have more than one medical condition: eight in 10 with four or more medical conditions report a sleep problem compared to about one half of those with no reported medical conditions (80 percent vs. 53 percent). In addition, the poll connects poor sleep with three physical problems affecting many older people: bodily pain, excess weight and ambulatory limitations.
According to the newest findings more than three-quarters (77 percent) of those who report having frequent bodily pain also report a sleep problem. Sleep problems are equally common among older adults who are classified as obese (77 percent) and are linked with two-thirds (64 percent) of those who are considered overweight by medical standards. And the vast majority of older people with impaired mobility are likely to report a sleep problem (84 percent), with two-thirds experiencing a symptom of insomnia.
Moreover, about four in 10 of those with impaired mobility report unpleasant feelings in their legs, a symptom of Restless Legs Syndrome, a serious but treatable sleep disorder.
Insomnia is the most common sleep problem; with about one-half of older adults (48 percent) reporting they frequently experience at least one symptom. (Symptoms of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, waking a lot during the night, waking up too early and not getting back to sleep, and waking feeling unrefreshed).