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Go Dark for Healthier Sleep

According to Harvard Health, a single night of poor sleep can not only leave you feeling cranky and unmotivated, but also over time, raise the risk of a number of chronic health problems, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

It can also leave you more vulnerable to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that chronic sleep deprivation can also increase your risk of dementia by 33 percent and age your brain by as much as three to five years.

This is why our primary care doctors in Delray Beach often urge our patients to be sure they get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep every night.

Sleep more elusive

It’s especially important as we age, because other recognized effects of sleep deprivation have particular relevance for older people: cognitive impairment, unsteadiness, which can lead to falls, and even higher mortality rates.

Yet a 2017 study published in the journal Neuron reported that the chemical signals the body sends to the brain to trigger sleep begin to break down with age. Matthew Walker, the lead study author, explained in a statement that this means even though people may feel tired enough to sleep, the brain is no longer receiving the direction to do so.

“It’s almost like a radio antenna that’s weak,” Walker said. “The signal is there but the antenna just can’t pick it up.”

Walker explained that because of the decline in receptor activity, by the time a person reaches age 50, they will be achieving only about half of the deep sleep they were getting in their 20s. By age 70, they will have almost no deep sleep. Sleeping pills can keep a person asleep, he said, but does not induce the necessary deep sleep.

Walker concluded that sleep deprivation is actually the cause of aging, rather than vice versa.

“Or at least it’s a two-way street I think and maybe the fact that it’s flowing in more than one direction. In other words, I think sleep disruption is a novel, underappreciated fact that is contributing to age and dementia as we get older,” he said.

Sleep aids

So our primary care doctors suggest you do everything you can to achieve deep, restful, quality sleep.

This includes:

  • going to bed at the same time every night
  • not sleeping on a full stomach
  • avoiding caffeine or alcohol after dinner
  • turning off “blue-light” devices (TVs, computers, smartphones) at least an hour before bedtime; and,
  • restricting activity in the bed to sex and sleep (i.e., no working, reading, TV, etc.)

One more way to accomplish the right kind of sleep is to make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible.

A new study published last month in the journal Sleep echoed previous studies, which have found that even dim light in the bedroom can disrupt sleep.

This new study focused on seniors who “already are at higher risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” study coauthor Minjee Kim, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told CNN.

The study took place in the subjects’ own bedrooms, rather than a sleep clinic, using a device that tracked sleep cycles, average movement, and light exposure.

“More than 53 percent had some light during the night in the room,” senior author Phyllis Zee, chief of sleep medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told CNN.

“In a secondary analysis, we found those who had higher amounts of light at night were also the most likely to have diabetes, obesity, or hypertension,” she said.

She also noted that people who sleep with higher levels of light were more likely to go to bed later and get up later, and “we know late sleepers tend to also have a higher risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disorders.”

Sneaky light

What surprised the researchers is that none of the study subjects reported having any trouble sleeping.

“The upshot is, it appears that light during sleep is affecting you, even if you’re not aware of it,” Zee told AARP.

“Your subconscious is aware that there’s light and there’s something going on, and it’s keeping you a little bit on watch. Your fight-or-flight system is activated,” she explained.

The problem is, many people, especially seniors, prefer some sort of light on at night in case they need to get up to use the bathroom and want to see where they’re going to prevent falls.

In that case, Kristin Daley, a psychologist and sleep medicine expert who chairs the clinical practice committee for the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, suggests using a flashlight.

“It trains the light away from your eye [as opposed to a nightlight, which] directs the light toward your eye,” she told AARP.

Another option Zee suggested is using nightlights positioned very low to the ground, and choosing lights with an amber or red color. That spectrum of light has a longer wavelength, and is less intrusive and disruptive to our circadian rhythm than the shorter blue-light wavelengths.

“I’m not saying you have to sleep in total darkness, because I understand that may not be possible for some people,” she said.

“The goal is to minimize light exposure and yet create a safe environment.”

Other strategies could include not charging cellphones and laptops in your bedroom, using light-blocking window shades, or wearing a sleep mask.

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