AGING
February 20, 2015

Meditate, Don’t Medicate

A lack of sleep has been tied to a host of health and memory problems, especially among seniors. Meditation can help.

Poor sleep quality is a major player in the memory problems many older adults face. And the drugs that many take to address those sleep problems often just make matters worse.

Those hoping to get a better night's sleep might want to meditate before they medicate, especially if they are worried about the cognitive problems that can accompany aging.

Scientists have documented that meditation provides many cognitive and emotional benefits, and now a new study shows that for older people with sleep problems, mindfulness training could help them sleep better, thereby reducing the next-day fatigue and mood disturbances that can come from lost sleep.

Sleep problems affect about half of the population over the age of 55. The fallout from sleep deprivation can be serious: Fatigue, lack of concentration, depression, and reduced quality of life all are symptoms of chronic sleep debt.

For older people with sleep problems, mindfulness training could help them sleep better and reduce the next-day fatigue and mood problems that can come from lost sleep.

Sleep loss has also been linked to physical health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and even early mortality.

The new study set out to determine whether mindfulness training might help people with sleep problems sleep better. The researchers had 50 people (average age 66) take either a mindfulness training course or a program in sleep hygiene, which teaches people about bedtime routines and abstaining from stimulants like electronics and caffeine in the latter part of the day.

Both groups improved their sleep quality, but the people exposed to mindfulness training did even better. They had less insomnia, depression, and fatigue compared to the sleep hygiene group. Interestingly, both groups showed almost the same level of improvement in stress, anxiety, and inflammation, suggesting that each intervention is helpful for those measures.

Since mindfulness courses are increasingly available in many areas of the country, signing up for one could be relatively easy, and a very good idea for people who are suffering from sleep problems, the authors believe. And given the links between sleep deprivation and mortality as one ages, it’s all the more important to treat sleep problems now rather than later.

If you have ongoing sleep problems, talk with your doctor, since you could have underlying health issues that are disturbing your sleep. But barring this, it may be worth trying mindfulness meditation — it’s been shown to help reduce stress, depression, improve well-being, and even change the grey matter in our brains. It certainly can't hurt, and it might even help you get a better night’s sleep — and that’s always a good thing for body and brain.

The study was carried out by a team at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

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