A good night's sleep. For the ever-vigilant, ever-stressed caregiver, the thought of getting a solid eight hours may seem like a pleasant pipe dream.
And you're not alone. The National Center for Sleep Disorders estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of American adults suffer from chronic bouts of insomnia.
Yet, studies linking inadequate sleep to a number of physical and mental ailments continue to pile up. Begging the question: Can anyone, especially those taking care of an elderly loved one, afford to skimp on their snoozing?
There are a multitude of reasons why a caregiver needs to prioritize getting a solid amount of shut-eye. Among other things, sleep:
- Slashes stress: There's a reason that AgingCare has an entire section devoted to caregiver stress—it's perhaps the single most common affliction of family caregivers. And it can be greatly affected by how much shut-eye you're getting. Studies show that, when you fail to get the necessary amount of sleep, your brain will hit the panic button, causing your stress levels to elevate. Conversely, when you're stressed, it can be nearly impossible for you to fall and stay asleep—no matter how tired you are. If you're unable to control your stress levels, this can turn into a vicious cycle.
- Magnifies memory: Worried that you're loved one's dementia might be rubbing off on you because you keep forgetting where you put your keys? It might just be that you're not getting enough sleep. Though the exact process remains elusive, scientists have concluded that sleep plays an essential role in the processing and retention of new information. Memory can be spilt up into three parts: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. While acquisition and recall can occur while a person is awake, consolidation—the process that makes a memory a permanent fixture in a person's mind—is believed to only occur when a person is asleep.
- Decreases depression: The trials and tribulations of caregiving are enough to make anyone feel hopeless, but evidence indicates that sleep deprivation can also play a role in regulating your mood. According to the National Sleep Foundation, not getting enough sleep may increase a person's risk for developing depression. It can also intensify symptoms in people who already suffer from the mental disorder. This connection partially explains why certain sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea, have also been linked to depression.
- Curbs cravings: Find yourself reaching for that tub of ice cream more and more often? Compared to their well-rested peers, those who don't get enough sleep may be less able to resist the temptation to dig into unhealthy comfort food. Recent research conducted by scientists from Columbia University and St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center discovered that when a person is sleep-deprived, the reward centers in their brain respond strongly to images of unhealthy food, while images of healthy food provoked little or no reward response. Other studies have connected not getting enough sleep to an increased craving for sweet and salty foods as well as an uptick in a person's risk for becoming obese.
- Heightens health: Even if you can find the time and finances to exercise and eat healthy, if you're not getting enough restful sleep, your efforts may be for naught. Countless research studies have linked inadequate sleep with a variety of health problems, including: increased risk of developing certain cancers, higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and heightened inflammation.
- Axes anxiety: Too little sleep can make you go from concerned caregiver to wound-up worrywart in no time. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, recently discovered that people who don't get enough sleep have the tendency to become far more anxious about an upcoming emotional event than those who get a normal amount of Zs. Brain scans of sleep-deprived participants showed that they experienced a dramatic increase in the brain activity linked with heightened anxiety. For some of the sleepiest, their brain's negative anticipatory reaction was heightened by over 60 percent.