No one wants to end up in a nursing home and yet around 20% of us will live out that last part of our lives in a long-term care facility.  Researchers have previously established that for the elderly population, there is a link between how well they sleep and their risk of becoming disabled, developing problems with mobility, and experiencing problems with cognitive function.  In order to offer seniors the most effective preventative care and the best chance at being able to remain in their homes, we need to understand these kinds of links in more depth.

In an effort to increase this understanding, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD wanted to find out if sleep had an impact on the likelihood of nursing home placement.  The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society sought to determine if women that experienced sleep disturbances were more likely to end up in a nursing home.

The research team used information and data from a group of about 1,700 elderly women to determine if there was a link between fragmented or disrupted sleep and nursing home placement.  The team used actigraphs to monitor the participants sleep over the course of several nights.  The collection and use of objective data rather than subjective interviews is one of the important differences between this study and previous research on the same subject.  Participants, who had an average age of about 83, were then monitored for 5 years to see if there was any correlation between how they were sleeping and their likelihood of being in a long term care setting within that 5 year window.

The results were not comforting.  Across the study, the team found that those women who experienced sleep disturbances were more likely to have transitioned to long term care within the 5 year monitoring period.  In fact, the team found that those participants who were awake the longest after falling asleep and waking up were 3 times as likely to be in a nursing home as the women in the study with the least fragmented sleep.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, it is normal for people to experience more problems with sleep as they age.  Many people struggle to fall asleep and then to stay asleep all night.  These types of sleep disturbances are the same as those found to increase the likelihood of nursing home placement in the study.

Now that the link between sleep and nursing home placement risk has been established, more research needs to be done to understand why this link exists.   The team indicated that identifying a link does not prove a causal relationship and that in order to give people the best chance at spending their later years at home with their loved ones, more research into the relationship between sleep and long term care placement needs more attention.

As the portion of the U.S. population that is over 65 begins to increase rapidly with the retirement of the baby boomers, our need to understand the complex relationship that sleep plays in our lives as we age will only increase.  For now, all the research points to the importance of sleep to maintaining good health regardless of your age.

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