It’s estimated that nearly half of people over 55 years of age suffer from some level of insomnia. Researchers at Tel Aviv University have recently developed a drug to specifically combat this common problem in elderly individuals.
Insufficient amount of sleep is known to increase the risk of various medical conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, slowed metabolism (which can translate to obesity), dementia and depression. This risk is even greater in elderly people, who are more susceptible to these problems due to the natural aging process.
The explanation for why elderly individuals have trouble sleeping lies in the diminished ability of their bodies to naturally differentiate between day and night. This occurs because of decreased levels of the hormone melatonin, which is known to progressively decrease with age. The researchers aimed to develop a medication that increased nighttime melatonin levels, allowing for a healthier and more restorative sleep. This is in contrast to current sleeping medications, which most often aim to induce tiredness, which ends up having side effects such as grogginess and memory loss.
The drug developed, called Circadin, has been successfully tested in the United States and Europe, and while it is still in the stages of being tested and approved in the United States, it gives some hope to combating this natural but dangerous progression. By increasing nighttime melatonin levels, Circadin “improves sleep and daytime vigilance, helping to re-organize the circadian system, the body’s internal clock.” Higher nighttime melatonin levels were also observed to have positive effects on blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
It’s also noted that sleeping habits of elderly people often worsen the problem of decreased melatonin levels. According to lead researcher Dr. Nava Zisapel, many elderly “people are sleeping in front of the TV, or nodding off during conversations, and taking long afternoon naps. This leads to less sleep at night. In a way, their sleep habits become more like babies’, and less like those of healthy adults who sleep in consolidated periods during the night.”
Even if the specific drug developed above does not become the final solution to elderly sleeping problems, the research provides a sound basis for how to attack the problem. First off, elderly individuals should make sure to spend some time outside everyday, increasing their exposure to natural sunlight and better allowing the body to naturally differentiate between day and night. Less time should be spent sleeping during the daytime for many of the elderly as well.In addition, this study provides the possibility of medically enhancing diminished melatonin levels, allowing for the feeling of a healthy and restorative sleep. This should limit side effects, and help prevent both the development and complications of common and dangerous conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Source: Defeat Diabetes Foundation: Zisapel, Nava. Journal of Sleep Research news release. August 2008.