January 20, 1997

Media Contacts: Sarah Goodwin, 404/727-3366 - sgoodwi@emory.edu
Kathi Ovnic, 404/727-9371 - covnic@emory.edu

Emory researchers are pulling the covers off what makes for a good night's sleep in the elderly.

Learning how getting older affects our sleep may lead to treatments that could help patients with such age-related diseases as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and even prevent conditions such as strokes, says Donald L. Bliwise, Ph.D., associate professor of neurology and director of Emory's Sleep Disorder Center. The center is located at Wesley Woods Geriatric Hospital at Emory University.

While many factors affect sleep - such as diet, exercise, stress, prescription drugs - aging has a major impact on how long we sleep and the quality of that sleep. As we age, we tend to fall asleep earlier at night and awake earlier in the morning. We may want to take more catnaps. And the likelihood that we regularly have trouble sleeping increases as we age, Bliwise says.

For example, older people tend to suffer sleep disorders - like sleep apnea - more often than younger people, according to Bliwise. And while only a fifth of adults in their 30s suffer insomnia, it strikes about half of those age 65 and older, according to estimates by sleep researchers.

Bliwise and his colleagues at the Sleep Disorder Center are conducting two studies to investigate the sleep of both the healthy and unhealthy elderly. "We want to learn what are age-related changes in sleep and what are disease-related changes,'' Bliwise says.

One project, which begins in January, will compare sleeping patterns of college students, older healthy adults and elderly patients with various diseases.

Over a three-day weekend, the participants will live on a 90-minute day, instead of the typical 24-hour day. They will attempt to sleep for 30 minutes and then stay awake for an hour, all while researchers track their body temperatures.

The Emory team will focus on body temperature because it cycles throughout the day, dropping as we sleep and rising when we awake. As we age, the difference between that low and high body temperature lessens even as the cycle speeds up. By putting study participants on a 90-minute day, Bliwise hopes to learn what happens to body temperature differences and cycles when a person's sleep is disrupted.

A second study at Emory examines the movements the healthy elderly make while asleep compared to those of a sleeping patient with Parkinson's. Most patients with Parkinson's, a movement disorder, have trouble sleeping.

"The folk wisdom is that in patients with Parkinson's, the movements disappear in sleep. But they're there," Bliwise says. "There may be an increase in tremors, especially during dreaming sleep," also known as R.E.M. sleep.

Management of muscle movement during sleep is important for Parkinson's patients, Bliwise says. "If we can improve their sleep, we can give them a better quality of life during the day," he says. "Sleep is indispensable for life. We hope to ultimately improve the health and well-being of our patients while understanding how sleep is disrupted in normal aging and in common age-related diseases."

Writer: A. J. Hostetler

For more general information on The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, call Health Sciences News and Information at 404-727-5686, or send e-mail to hsnews@emory.edu.

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