As the country prepares to "spring forward" an hour for daylight saving time this Sunday, it's important to keep in mind how even a tiny time change can affect your health—particularly if you're older or suffering from a chronic illness.

Studies have shown that the spring daylight saving time shift can impact a person's well-being in several ways.

  • Sleep struggles: Interruption in regular sleep patterns is by far the biggest problem following a daylight saving time shift. Even a small change in your snooze schedule can knock your natural circadian rhythm out of whack. The resulting lack of sleep in the days following a clock change can lead to grogginess and loss of mental acuity.
  • Heart attack hazard: Heart attack rates spike by about five percent in the days after the March time change, according to a 2008 study published by researchers from the Karolinska Instituet in Sweden. The same study showed that there is a subsequent drop in heart attack occurrences in the fall, when the clocks get turned back.
  • Car crash concerns: Daylight saving time also appears to impact automobile accident rates. The Monday morning immediately following the "spring forward" time change is riddled with as many as 17 percent more fatal car crashes than normal, according to Canadian researchers. Experts aren't in agreement as to exactly why this occurs, though many speculate that the phenomenon stems from an increase in sleepy drivers, and those running late for work.

"Springing forward" harder for seniors

An extra cup of coffee and a few days to adjust is enough to get most people back on their feet after a time change. The same cannot be said for elderly individuals, or those suffering from chronic health conditions.

The biggest problem that older individuals have with daylight saving time is loss of sleep.

"Sleep fragmentation is already typical among older adults—particularly those who have chronic health conditions," says Sharon Roth-Maguire, M.S., R.N., senior vice president of quality and clinical operations for BrightStar Care, a home health agency. "Even small changes in sleep patterns can have significant consequences for senior health."

While no research has been conducted on the exact effects of daylight saving on senior health, a sleep-deprived senior is more likely to make mistakes regarding their medication management and may have an increased risk of falling, says Roth-Maguire, who has worked with the elderly as a geriatric nurse practitioner for over 26 years. (Learn what other factors can cause falls in elderly people)

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Matthew Mingrone, M.D., lead physician for EOS Sleep California centers, adds that disrupting a senior's natural biological rhythms may also cause an increase in disorientation and erratic behavior.

Tips for adjusting to daylight saving time

  1. Stick to a routine: Adhering to a regular sleep pattern (varying the time you go to bed and the time you wake up by no more than 20 minutes) helps keep your internal cycle on track, despite a slight time change, says Mingrone.
  2. Stay away from sleep disrupters: Caffeine, alcohol, over-the-counter sleep medications and naps are all no-nos, especially during the days surrounding daylight saving time, according to Roth-Maguire.
  3. Get some sun: Exposure to natural sunlight helps regulate your body's natural rhythms. Depending on where you live, the weather may be too cold to spend too much time outside, but you can at least pull up the shade and sit in front of the window for a few minutes.
  4. Work up a sweat: Engaging in some form of cardiovascular exercise (walking, jogging, biking, swimming) in the late afternoon or early evening may help you fall asleep easier. If you don't have the time or energy to spare, a hot bath can achieve the same result, according to Mingrone, who says that first raising your body temperature, and then gradually lowering it right before bed time encourages your body to produce the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin.
  5. Practice good sleep "hygiene": Roth-Maguire says that anyone having trouble sleeping should ask themselves three questions about their sleep environment: Is it dark enough? Is it cool enough? Is it quiet enough? The final question—is it quiet enough—is especially important for older adults because they are more likely to be awoken by nighttime noise.