Sleep may be the next frontier for aged care. Research has revealed how better sleep can help the elderly live healthier, happier lives.
Over a third of people over the age of 65 have trouble sleeping at night. This is partially because of changing body clock – inside the brain there is a cluster of cells that help tell the body when to sleep and when to be awake. It’s this cluster that regulates our circadian rhythm. Unfortunately, as we age, this cluster becomes less and less active.
This lack of activity might be caused by a lack of light. Our circadian rhythms are normally regulated by how much light we see – the more light, the more awake we are. That’s why it’s difficult to sleep if you look at something bright just before you go to bed. As we age, our eyes start to work less well. The lens of the eye begins to get thicker, and the pupil gets smaller, meaning we get less light inside our eyes. This is particularly true in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease patients are well known for having particularly disturbed sleeping patterns. They sleep in short spurts, seldom longer than 15 minutes. This leads to both irritation and depression.
Recent research by Dr Eus Van Someren, of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, has found exciting evidence that these coincidences might be connected. Many elderly care centres are poorly lit, meaning that the people inside are only rarely exposed to bright light. Dr Van Someren changed this by increasing the light levels over three times in nursing homes. He then studied the effect of this change over a number of years. The results were remarkable. The patients had less depression, improved memory, and their ability to perform everyday tasks declined far less than would be expected. A simple thing like increasing the amount of light in the room gave similar effects to the drugs currently used to treat dementia, without the side effects.
Even if the lights in their house are dim, there’s still an easy fix for many elderly people. If they simply go outside or stay near an open window for the brightest parts of the day (wearing sun protection, of course!), they may find themselves rewarded with longer, better sleep.
A fire that ripped through an Australian aged care facility has abruptly shone a light on this mostly hidden portion of our population.
Nine elderly people were killed, and many more were injured, in a fire that has now been concluded to be arson. One of the nurses has been taken into custody, awaiting trial for murder.
Beyond the human tragedy of the fire, there has been a ripple effect through Australian society. There have been calls for better fire regulation of elderly homes, which are needed but will probably lead to the collapse of several facilities that cannot pay for the expensive renovations to comply.
More interestingly, perhaps, has been the public reaction to the event. It has demonstrated that the general public remains uniquely uncomfortable about the concept of aging, and the way their elderly relatives are treated. New stories that showed pictures of the elderly lying in ambulances outside the burned facility received complaints for “gross insensitivity”. Many treated the story with shock. This is, in part, due to the way our society keeps our elderly hidden. Seeing the lives and treatment of the elderly is profoundly uncomfortable for the public, who don’t like to think about people so dependent on others for food, movement, and support.
The aging population is not a problem that will go away if it is ignored. Indeed, the slower we act, the worse the problem will become. It is essential that we turn this lack of comfort with the elderly into a driving force for change. Otherwise the future of our society is in jeopardy.
Proving that good can come from any situation, researchers have found that people tend to create less carbon dioxide emissions as they reach old age.
By looking at how residents spent their money, the researchers were able to figure out what each elderly person’s carbon emissions were. Once people reach retirement, they are producing more carbon dioxide than at any other time in their lives. After retirement, however, this level begins to drop. According to the study by demographer Emilio Zagheni of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, the level drops from 14.9 metric tons per person annually at age 65 to 13.1 metric tons at age 80.
Why is it so? Elderly people tend to drive less and take public transport more, burning less fossil fuels. They also spend more on health, which is a low-carbon industry. On the other hand, they also spend more time at home, consuming more electricity and gas through living.
If electricity and home living can be made more carbon-neutral, society could reap the benefits of an aging population with a better, cleaner climate.
Dementia is one of the most feared aspects of aging. Losing mental strength can be distressing, socially isolating, and make it difficult to live independently.
Thankfully, specialists in aging minds say that most dementia can be prevented, even for the very old. By changing lifestyle and taking time and effort, almost anyone can avoid the worst of dementia. In fact, there is evidence that lifestyle plays a larger role than genetics in the mental health of the aged. As the population ages, and more and more people live long enough to worry about dementia, the need for this kind of prevention will only grow.
Strangely, the answer to keeping mentally fit is not the obvious one – crosswords and brain-teasers don’t actually help much, according to experts. Let’s go through the most important ways to keep the brain working perfectly.
Exercise is an essential part of staving off dementia. Scientists have found that exercise, even only modest amounts, can actually increase the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is partially responsible for forming memories and is necessary to keep the whole brain working well. Other studies have found that elderly people who exercised had better blood flow to their brains. Even better, the earlier you start exercising, the more healthy your brain will be by the time you reach old age.
Not only will eating more healthily reduce risk of heart disease and many cancers, it can also keep the brain sharp as we age. Eating a diet with lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes is excellent for mental health. There are a number of vitamins and minerals that have been shown to stave off dementia – eat foods rich in vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and curcumin.
Keep mentally active
The main part of keeping mentally active is to constantly learn and be engaged. Traditional types of mental exercise, like crosswords, can be mastered in a short time and stop helping the brain improve. Learning a new language, studying a new field, or playing a musical instrument is much better at keeping the brain engaged. Staying social is a big part of this – talking to friends provides excellent mental stimulation and has been proven to lead to lower rates of Alzheimers disease.
Keep stress free
Lowering stress keeps the brain supple and healthy. High levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, can actually damage the hippocampus and increase the risk of dementia. A study of people that meditated for 30 minutes a day even found that they increased the size of their brains.
As we age, we can stay significantly healthier, happier, and more independent if we are still mentally acute. One of the major challenges of this century will be staving off mental illness while we still can. If we can reduce the rates of dementia just through lifestyle changes, it will lead to a better life for all.
Researchers at the University of Alberta, in collaboration with IBM, have set up a high-tech condo where elderly people can live, watched by hundreds of sensors. Why? To understand the way the elderly work.
Elderly people have different needs, different abilities to move, and different behaviours. These differences, even though they have been around since the dawn of man, are not actually well understood.
In order to better understand the needs of the growing elderly population, the university has created this facility. It tracks every aspect of the elderly person’s life – from their heart rate to body weight to the use of doors, furniture, and appliances. It does this using an array of smart sensors attached to almost everything in the home. This allows the exact behaviours of elderly people to be tracked without intrusive cameras or microphones.
This behaviour is then mapped onto a virtual simulation, which students and researchers can then use for training.
The facility is also being used to test new devices. Already, the researchers have been able to improve a medication monitoring device by looking at how the elderly were actually using it.
The data collected by the program could be useful in helping to create and design new systems for aged care. But overall, it’s mainly about understanding just how the elderly actually work.