Like every other process in the body, our sleep is influenced by the external environment and the seasons.
As the light levels change as we head toward summer, our sleep cycle also changes as melatonin levels (the hormone that makes us sleepy) begin to rise earlier in the evening and fall off earlier in the morning. We might start to feel the need to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier.
Getting enough sleep is essential to our health and well being. The following facts should help motivate you to make sleeping well a top priority.
1. Sleep may act as a “fountain of youth,” protecting against a number of health problems. In 2017, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley noted that as a society, we’ve done a good job of extending our life span, but a poor job of extending the longevity of our health . We now see sleep, and improving sleep, as a pathway to help remedy that. Unlike the cosmetic markers of aging, such as wrinkles and gray hair, sleep deterioration has been linked to such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and stroke.”
2. Sleep protects our thinking and memory. Poor sleep has been linked with risk factors for stroke and some forms of dementia. Recently, there has been exciting research revealing answers to some of the mysteries of sleep—and our understanding of sleep’s effect on the brain. This is an educational milestone. Neurologists now know that it is while we’re slumbering that our brain clears out harmful waste products that accumulated during the day. Sleep is the time when our brain converts the short-term memories of the day into long-term memories.
3. Sleep makes us much safer drivers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that getting behind the wheel when we haven’t slept well puts us at higher risk of a crash due to drowsy driving. If we’ve slept even a couple of hours less than we need, our risk of an accident doubles, according to the AAA Foundation.
4. Sleep helps us maintain a healthy weight. You would think that staying awake longer would use up more calories and hence help us shed unwanted pounds, but it doesn’t work that way. In 2017, researchers from the University of Leeds in the UK reported that people who sleep less than seven hours each night have on average a larger waist measurement than those who sleep longer. Sleep-related obesity then raises the risk of diabetes, a higher level of LDL (bad) cholesterol and other health conditions.
5. Sleep reduces a senior’s risk of falling. For years, it was assumed that seniors with sleep problems had a higher fall rate because they took sleep medications, which can cause dizziness and drowsiness. However, a recent study published by the American Geriatrics Society showed that poor sleep itself increases the likelihood that an elder will fall. In addition, seniors who sleep poorly are more likely to get up at night, another fall risk.
6. Sleep helps keep us independent. A study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that disturbed sleep is linked with disability and impairment in the activities of daily living and mobility. By helping us fight heart disease, dementia and other health conditions, good quality sleep means we’ll need less help as we grow older.
7. Our loved ones sleep better when we do. Poor quality sleep is a family affair. Studies show that when one spouse snores or has other sleep disturbances, this can have a negative effect on their sleep partner. The sleep quality of family caregivers, too, can suffer when their loved one gets up at night, especially if they must be “on call” to help their loved one to the bathroom or back to bed.
If you are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or if you think you might have a sleep disorder such as insomnia or sleep apnea, talk to your doctor right away. Sometimes lifestyle changes can help—changing our diet, avoiding caffeine and alcohol near bedtime, making the room darker and quieter, getting more exercise (but not too close to bedtime) and—these days, this is a biggie—putting away smartphones and tablets near bedtime and reading a book or listening to quiet music instead. Beyond lifestyle changes, sleep specialists can conduct an evaluation and recommend other treatments. Knowing that solutions exist and pursuing them can lead to improved sleep and a safer, happier existence.