As we prepare to “spring forward” an hour and begin daylight saving time (DST) 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.

Negative Health Effects of Daylight Saving Time

Studies have shown that the spring daylight saving time shift can impact a person’s well-being in several ways, including the following:

  • Sleep Struggles

    Interruption of regular sleep patterns is by far the biggest problem with daylight saving time. Even a small change in your sleep schedule can knock your natural circadian rhythm out of whack. One study found that the average person loses about 40 minutes of sleep on the Monday following the switch to daylight saving time. This may not seem significant, but sleep deprivation and circadian misalignment in the days following the change can lead to grogginess, forgetfulness and poor concentration.
  • Cardiovascular Risks

    A meta-analysis of seven studies on the effects of DST on cardiovascular health confirmed that there is a significantly higher risk of heart attack during the two-week period following the spring transition.
  • The “DST Effect”

    Daylight saving time also appears to impact automobile accident rates. A 2020 study found that “spring DST significantly increased fatal motor vehicle accident risk by 6%” for Americans in the week following the time change. Researchers observed that this increase is more pronounced in the morning and in locations further west within a time zone, but motor vehicle accident risk is also increased in the afternoons during this week as well. 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” Is Harder on 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. However, the same may not apply for older adults or those in poor health.

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,” explains Sharon Roth Maguire, M.S., RN, GNP-BC, vice president and director of health services for LCS. “Even small changes in sleep patterns can have significant consequences for senior health.”

A sleep-deprived senior is more likely to make mistakes with their medications and may have an increased risk of falling, says Roth Maguire, who has decades of experience working with the elderly as a geriatric nurse practitioner.

Matthew Mingrone, M.D., lead physician at Bay Area Sleep and Breathing Solutions in California, adds that disrupting a senior’s natural biological rhythms may also cause an increase in disorientation and erratic behavior. This combination can be very dangerous for older adults who are still driving.

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Keep in mind that those living with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia may be extra disoriented by the time change. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation and circadian disturbances can exacerbate troublesome dementia behaviors, including wandering, shadowing and sundowning. Try your best to adhere to their daily routine, but be flexible and understanding if your loved one is more agitated, anxious or drowsy than usual.

5 Tips for Adjusting to Daylight Saving Time

Seniors and their family caregivers will probably experience at least mild effects of turning the clocks forward this weekend. Following the tips below should help you both cope in the days and weeks after DST begins.

  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 additional 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 still be too cold to spend much time outside, but you can at least open your blinds and sit in front of a window for a few minutes.
  4. Work up a sweat.

    Engaging in some form of cardiovascular exercise (e.g., 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. Mingrone explains that first raising your body temperature and then gradually lowering it right before bedtime encourages production of 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 especially important for older adults since they are more likely to be awoken by nighttime noise.