Sleepy Seniors Have Higher Health Risks

Mar 12, 2020

If you're over 65 and sleeping well at night, yet find yourself nodding off during the day, you may have a higher risk of developing new medical conditions like diabetes and cancer.

New research found that people who were excessively tired during the day had about twice the risk of being diagnosed with high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or cancer.

"Healthy people, without major medical conditions, are minimally sleepy through the day," said the study's lead author, Dr. Maurice Ohayon. He's a professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Stanford University.

"Getting older doesn't mean you have to be tired and sleepy. [Excessive daytime sleepiness] is mostly linked to a medical condition that deserves to be addressed by your physician," he explained.

The study looked at "hypersomnolence" in people over 65. Hypersomnolence is excessive daytime sleepiness in people who have had seven or more hours of sleep at night. People with hypersomnolence will have recurrent periods of sleep during the day. They don't feel refreshed after sleeping as much as nine hours or more. They have difficulty being fully awake after they are abruptly awakened, Ohayon said.

For someone to be diagnosed with hypersomnolence, these symptoms have to occur at least three times a week over a three-month period, he noted.

In past research, this type of excessive daytime sleepiness has been linked to a decline in thinking and memory skills, and even to Alzheimer's disease.

The current study included people from eight U.S. states. Information was collected at two time points three years apart.

During the first interview, study volunteers' average age was 73, Ohayon said. The final analysis included just over 3,700 participants older than 65. Just under 60% of the study volunteers were women.

Thirty-seven percent of participants were overweight and 26% were obese at the start of the study. About 9% of the study volunteers had obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that disrupts sleep often throughout the night. Sleep apnea is associated with daytime sleepiness.

Just under 23% of the study volunteers reported hypersomnolence at the start of the study. Three years later, that number increased to nearly 24%.

The researchers adjusted the data to control for the effects of gender, weight and sleep apnea.

The investigators found the risk of developing type 2 diabetes was 2.3 times higher in people who were excessively tired throughout the day. The risk of cancer was two times higher, and the risk of high blood pressure was a little more than two times higher in the sleepier seniors, the study found.

"If hypersomnolence prevents you from doing what you like during the daytime, then it is a problem," and something you should talk to your doctor about, Ohayon said.

He said if you're taking medications and struggling to stay awake, it's possible that you're experiencing a side effect from the drug.

According to Dr. Natakki Wheatley, a family medicine physician from Detroit Medical Center's Sinai-Grace Hospital, "Daytime sleepiness is not necessarily a part of normal aging. It's something to mention to your doctor, especially if you've noticed it developed in a short period of time."

Some conditions linked to daytime fatigue include type 2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, depression, high blood pressure, heart failure, low thyroid hormone levels, and certain vitamin deficiencies.

"Some of these underlying conditions can be easily screened and treated," she said.

The bottom line? Both experts said if you find yourself struggling to stay awake or if you're nodding off after a full night of sleep, talk with your doctor to see if you have a medical condition that needs treatment.

The study's findings are scheduled for presentation at the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting in Toronto, Canada, between April 25 and May 1. Findings presented at meetings are typically viewed as preliminary until they're published in a peer-reviewed journal.


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