It's a popular misconception that older adults need less sleep. Actually, our need for shuteye doesn't diminish with age at all. If anything, the quality of our sleep appears to be even more important as we age. And a new study has found that a lot of tossing and turning in the middle of the night may actually have a very dangerous risk factor attached to it.
Problems sleeping have been linked with increased risk of suicide in the elderly, according to new research published in the Journal of American Medicine Association today. These findings bridge the gap between previous studies, which have already shown that older adults suffer from both poor sleep and higher suicide rates.
Rebecca A. Bernert, PhD, director of the Suicide Prevention Research Laboratory at Stanford University, looked at 420 adults with an average age of 75. Utilizing in-person interviews and self-reported data in her 10-year study, Bernert found that difficulty falling asleep and non-restorative sleep put subjects at 1.4 times greater risk for suicide -- 1.2 when controlled for depression, which is still a statistically significant finding.
Over the course of 10 years, 20 out of the 420-person sample committed suicide, with those who reported lower sleep quality showing an increased risk. But one demographic in particular stood out amongst those in danger: 19 of the suicides occurred in males, particularly white males. This unfortunately reflects national statistics on suicide rates, which show that 79 percent of suicides are male.
Perhaps the most alarming finding of the study was that trouble sleeping was a better indicator than depressive symptoms when it came to predicting suicide in older adults.
"One potential explanatory mechanism is mood regulation difficulties," Bernert told The Huffington Post. "Sleep disturbances fail to provide an emotional respite to distressed individuals and make it more difficult to regulate emotion, thereby lowering the threshold for suicidal behaviors."
The implications of this research could change the way we look at suicide prevention as well as the way we go about screening and providing therapy for those at risk. While the elderly made up 13 percent of the population in 2010, they represented almost 15.6 percent of all suicides, according to the American Association of Suicidology. Clearly, this demographic is in need of more attention when it comes to sleep.
"Part of the novelty of these sleep findings is that, compared to many other risk factors for suicide that are known, sleep disturbances may be undone," Bernert said. "They're also highly visible as a warning sign, and they're very treatable."
These new findings will hopefully shed some much-needed light on the problem and help older adults get the help they need if they're contemplating suicide. Bernert hypothesized that, by disentangling sleep from other risk factors, we're taking a very important step in suicide prevention.
"Suicide is a complex public health problem, but it is preventable," she said.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Note: The AAS webpage listing the statistic attributing 84 percent of elderly suicides to males is no longer available. That statistic has been replaced in this article with a comparable statistic from the CDC.