Feeling of purpose in life linked to reduced sleep disturbances in the elderly, study reveals

A new study carried out by Northwestern Medicine and Rush University Medical Center on older adults reports that a person is more likely to sleep better, with less sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, if he has a good purpose to wake up in the morning.

The study, which was published on Sunday, July 9, in the journal Sleep Science and Practice, is the first of this kind to explain having a purpose in life specifically results in improved sleep quality and fewer sleep disturbances over a long period of time. Prior research showed that overall sleep, when measured at a particular point of time, is generally improved when one has a purpose in life.

Researchers said that even though the participants in this study were elderly people, with an average age of 79, the application of the findings to a broader public is possible.

Senior author Jason Ong, an associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine said: "Helping people cultivate a purpose in life could be an effective drug-free strategy to improve sleep quality, particularly for a population that is facing more insomnia. Purpose in life is something that can be cultivated and enhanced through mindfulness therapies."

He also added that sleep disturbances and insomnia increase when people get older; non-drug interventions are preferred by clinicians to improve patients' sleep. This practice as a first line treatment for insomnia is newly recommended by the American College of Physicians.  

The study consisted of 823 non-demented participants between 60 to 100, from two cohorts at Rush University Medical Center. More than half of the samples were African Americans and females constituted 77% of the overall population.

Questionnaires with 10 questions on purpose in life and 32 questions on sleep were provided to the participants for answering. They were asked to rate statements such as, "I feel good when I think of what I've done in the past and what I hope to do in the future", in the survey for the purpose in life.

Sleep apnea was 63% less likely to occur in older adults who felt their life has meaning and, for restless leg syndrome, there was a 52% decrease. These patients also had moderate better sleep quality, which is a global measure of sleep disturbances. The results were similar in both whites as well as African American.

Arlener Turner, the study's first author and a former postdoctoral fellow in neurology at Feinberg said that the next step in the research should be to study the use of mindfulness-based therapies to target purpose in life and resulting sleep quality.

Having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, feeling sleepy during the day, etc., are related to poor sleep quality. Sleep apnea increases with age. It is a common disorder in which a person has shallow breathing or pauses in breathing during sleep several times per hour. These disturbances mean a person does not feel refreshed when waking up, as well as feeling excessively sleepy during the day.

Uncomfortable sensations in the leg that create an irresistible urge to move them cause restless leg syndrome. The symptoms of this syndrome are mostly exhibited during late afternoon or evening hours and are often most severe at night when a person is resting (sitting or lying in bed).

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