- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

Healthy? Check the pulse, the blood pressure and that nightly snooze. The quality of sleep could be a new vital sign for doctors to consider, according to a longevity study released yesterday.

“The importance of sleep to healthy aging is often overlooked in the medical community, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that good sleep could be a new vital sign,” said Dr. Robert N. Butler of the International Longevity Center, a research center associated with New York-based Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

“Poor sleep is a condition that needs to be addressed, diagnosed and treated. It could be as important as nutrition, exercise and social engagement to the health of older adults,” Dr. Butler said.

Heart disease, cancer, obesity and hypertension are among the conditions that interfere with sleep, according to the study, which found a direct correlation between good health and sound sleep.

Almost half — 46 percent — of older adults who felt they were healthy also said they slept well, according to Gallup, which polled 1,003 adults older than 50 in conjunction with the study.

However, decent sleep is elusive for many. Another 46 percent said they got by on seven hours of sleep or less each night, while 20 percent got less than six hours.

Many seem to accept their bedtime fate. Less than half felt they needed more sleep than they got in younger years, and just a quarter felt that they had a “sleep problem.” Another 53 percent said their doctors have never treated them for insomnia.

Older adults tend to distrust the remedies. The poll found that 77 percent were concerned about long-term effects of prescription sleep aids and nearly seven in 10 were afraid they could become addicted to them. Only 9 percent deemed prescriptions as “very safe.”

Nocturnal worrying does not seem to abate as we age, either. Six out of 10 respondents reported that worry interfered with their ability to fall asleep, and stay asleep. Personal circumstances can compound the problem.

“Many older Americans are assuming the role of primary caregiver for a parent or relative — a position often accompanied by high levels of anxiety,” Dr. Butler observed.

Some worry more than others, though. Older men are more likely than older women (38 percent to 27 percent) to say they get a good night’s sleep, seven days a week.

Other research supports the idea that refreshing sleep is a viable indicator of overall health. A 2003 study by the Virginia-based National Sleep Foundation also found that the better the health of older adults, the more likely they were to sleep well. The group also found, however, that doctors tend to discount the importance of bedtime.

“There is a very strong correlation between common medical conditions and a predisposition to sleep disturbances,” noted Dr. Daniel Foley, an epidemiologist with the National Institute on Aging.

“What may go overlooked is a major sleep disorder that many be complicating treatment of the other conditions,” he added.

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