Daily social/physical activity improves sleep and cognition in the elderly

December 14, 2004

More than half of adults over the age of 65 have trouble sleeping, characterized by both lighter sleep and frequent awakenings during the night. A decline in cognitive function is common with advanced age, and research has shown that disturbed sleep in younger adults and in the elderly causes daytime sleepiness and negatively affects cognitive performance.

Now, a study by sleep researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine suggests that even short-term exposure to either morning or evening social and physical activity improves cognitive performance and subjective sleep quality in the elderly.

The study, by Susan Benloucif, Phyllis Zee, M.D., and colleagues is described in an article in the Dec. 15 issue of the journal Sleep.

Benloucif is associate professor and Zee is professor in the Ken and Ruth Davee Department of Neurology and Clinical Neurological Sciences at Feinberg.

"Many of the health changes associated with aging, including the decline in sleep and cognitive abilities, can be attributed to sedentary lifestyles and social disengagement among older individuals," Benloucif said.

"Evidence suggests that maintenance of social engagement and avoidance of social isolation are important factors in maintaining cognitive vitality in old age," Benloucif said.

Twelve older men and women (between 67 and 86 years) living in retirement facilities and residential apartments participated in the pilot study at Northwestern.

All 12 were healthy older adults or adults with chronic but stable medical conditions and independent in their activities of daily living.

The study consisted of a daily 90-minute session over a 14-day period that included 30 minutes of mild physical activity, 30 minutes of social interaction and a final 30 minutes of mild to moderate physical activity. Sessions began with warm-up stretching and mild to moderate physical activity (walking, stationary upper and lower body exercises), followed by seated social interaction (talking while playing board or card games). The final period consisted of mild to moderate physical activity, such as rapid walking, calisthenics or dancing, ending with a 10-minute cool-down.

Cognitive and psychomotor performance was assessed at the beginning and end of the study. Participants maintained daily sleep diaries in which bedtime, wake-up time, estimated total sleep time, naps, etc., were recorded. Daily activity recordings were obtained via wrist monitors to verify sleep periods.

Results of the study showed that participation in a short-duration social and physical activity program improved cognitive performance by 4 to 6 percent and improved subjective sleep quality in older adults.

Future controlled randomized clinical studies of behavioral approaches are needed to confirm the benefits of increasing social and physical activity levels in older sedentary adults with insomnia, the researchers said.
-end-
Collaborating with Benloucif and Zee on the study were Larry Orbeta, Rosemary Ortiz and Imke Janssen, Northwestern University; Sanford Finkel, M.D., Geriatric Institute, Council for Jewish Elderly, Chicago; and Joseph Bleiberg, Neuroscience Research Center, National Rehabilitation Hospital, Washington, D.C.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Brookdale National Foundation.

Northwestern University

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