How many hours per night do you sleep? Do you ever feel the need to take a “catnap” in order to make it through the day? What are the benefits of a sufficient amount of sleep? And why does it seem that both infants and children as well as the elderly require more sleep than others?

These are the kinds of questions that sleep researchers, psychiatrists and behavioral scientists explore in this new millennium where the average life expectancy continues to rise and where more medical breakthroughs provide ways to overcome illnesses once considered to be death sentences.

During an interactive session recently led by Dr. Sonia Ancoli-Israel during the 21st IAGG World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics in San Francisco, a standing-room only crowd listened to her and several others as they shared their latest findings on the importance of quality, adequate sleep associated with healthy aging as well as how to better manage sleep disorders, particularly in older patients.

One thing with which medical experts agree: sleep starts to deteriorate in late middle age and steadily erodes from that point on. Also, poor sleep, counter to commonly accepted theories, does not occur because of aging but rather because of illnesses or the medications one uses to treat them.

“The more disorders older adults have, the worse they sleep,” said Dr. Ancoli-Israel. “If you look at older adults who are very healthy, they rarely have sleep disorders.”

But what about those who say they suffer from sleep insomnia? The California-based professor of psychiatry and sleep researcher says there are a few changes one can make. First, avoid caffeine after lunch, avoid alcohol which while it makes one sleepy, actually causes insomnia. If you can’t get to sleep, get up and do something active for a while. Then return to bed. Most important, she says, remember that the bed is meant for sleep — not for texting, returning e-mails — or for tossing and turning.

And for the record, given the healing benefits associated with sleep, it may be wise to consider a few of the reasons why we should remember that adequate sleep remains a key part of a healthy lifestyle, impacting the heart, one’ weight and the mind in positive ways. In addition, adequate sleep not only makes us feel better but goes way beyond keeping those bothersome bags under our eyes to develop or making us “grouchy.”

One sleep research report conducted by the NYU Sleep Disorders Program made the following observations: 1) Memory improves after a good night’s sleep, so don’t fight the need to rest; 2) Too much or too little sleep, for reasons still unknown, can be connected to shorter lifespans; 3) Sleep not only can reduce levels of stress but helps people maintain greater control of their blood pressure and cholesterol levels — both of which play a significant role in heart disease; 4) Sleepiness, often underrated, affects both reaction time and decision making and costs society more than we can imagine; and 5) If you’re trying to handle depression, make sure you’re sleeping well as a lack of adequate sleep can result in a lot more than just a few moments of irritability.

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and AARP.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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