Home / Blog / Dr. Zorba Paster: As we grow older, quality of sleep can change

Dr. Zorba Paster: As we grow older, quality of sleep can change

Dec 13, 2023Dec 13, 2023

Last week, I talked about sleep hygiene, ways to help you get a better night's sleep. We don't get enough sleep, at least most of us don't. There are lots of reasons for this, including stress, work, kids, no kids — just life in general.

When I was a kid, sleep was not a problem. I remember sleeping over at my cousin Mark's house. We’d stay up late watching TV while my aunt and uncle were out to dinner and a movie. We always fell asleep in front of the TV, black and white picture, of course, probably watching "The Three Stooges."

When Uncle Al came home, he just picked us up and carried us into the bedroom. Sound asleep, we never woke up until the morning.

So, let's fast-forward to today. As an adult, it seems that I wake up if our dog is just walking around the room. And as for someone picking me up and moving me, forget it. That wouldn't happen unless I was slam-bam drunk, which won't be the case anytime soon.

My point here is, as we age, we sleep differently. If we’re anxious, have stressors or other psychological issues, our sleep suffers. Insomnia enters. And for many of us, fragmented sleep — having trouble sleeping, waking up on and off in the night and not being able to get back to sleep — is common.

Recently published research on insomnia in nursing homes interested me. We know insomnia affects all aspects of life's quality. Better sleep means better nutrition, cognition, all activities of daily living — what you do, how you think, how you exercise.

In this study, researchers took 110 people age 68 and older, measuring their quality of life with questionnaires. Each person answered a series of questions after using their regular blankets for sleeping and then again after using weighted blankets.

The results showed sleep improved dramatically with weighted blankets, especially when it came to sleeping through the night. Their general health improved because they ate better, and their cognitive tests showed they were more on top of things. All in all, the weighted blankets did something good.

A previous study I wrote about years ago looked at 120 adults ages 40 and over diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, all of whom were having trouble sleeping.

In that study, six out of 10 people who used a weighted blanket had a significant 50% improvement in sleep based on standardized sleep scores, compared with the control group. And these researchers found that a year later, nine out of 10 were still using the heavy blankets.

Now, it might be that the weight just interferes with movement enough to make us feel warm and safe. Perhaps that's it.

Others think the pressure from the blanket on different points of the body is similar to acupressure and massage. That deep pressure stimulation increases the parasympathetic arousal of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic arousal manifests in fight or flight, while parasympathetic does just the opposite — it's the calming mechanism our body needs to rest and sleep well.

My spin: Yes, the study was for folks who had insomnia and psychological problems, but I think we can really generalize here and say a weighted blanket might be worthwhile for anyone with insomnia. It's a non-drug measure that just might help you sleep better — and it could be worth a try.

Next week, I’ll continue my focus on sleep with a look at over-the-counter medications that might help if other efforts don't. And by the way, you’ll notice that I haven't gotten into the Mattress discussion. In June of last year there was an article in the New Yorker, How to Buy a New Mattress Without a Ph.D. in Chemistry, read that. It's an earful. Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster

This column provides general health information. Always consult your personal health care provider about concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort is implied or offered by Dr. Paster to people submitting questions. Any opinions expressed by Dr. Paster in his columns are personal and are not meant to represent or reflect the views of SSM Health.

Dr. Zorba Paster is the co-host of "Zorba Paster On Your Health," which airs at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturdays on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio, in Madison on WHA 970 AM. Paster, who practices family medicine in Oregon, also appears regularly on WISC-TV Ch. 3.

Send questions to [email protected] or write Wisconsin State Journal, Attn: Health Column, P.O. Box 8058, Madison, WI 53708.

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