Senior citizens can improve their sleep and thinking in just two weeks by becoming socially and physically active, say Northwestern University researchers.

Their findings, reported in the Dec. 14 issue of the journal Sleep, echo other studies on the benefits of social and physical activity. Isolation and inactivity aren’t believed to be good for anyone, regardless of age. But they can be particularly risky for seniors.

“Many of the health changes associated with aging, including the decline in sleep and cognitive abilities, can be attributed to sedentary lifestyles and social disengagement among older adults,” say the researchers, who included Susan Benloucif, PhD, of the neurology department at Northwestern’s medical school.

Sleep and thinking often suffer with age. More than half of adults over 65 report at least one sleep complaint, and more than a third say they can’t stay asleep all night or they arise in the morning’s wee hours. Sleep problems can start in middle age and tend to worsen every decade.

Likewise, mental abilities often falter with advanced age. Sleep problems might have an impact, since daytime sleepiness is associated with mental decline in older adults, say the researchers.

Activity’s Perks

Of course, not all senior citizens have those problems. Staying socially and physically active may be a key to preserving mental function and getting restful sleep as the years gather.

Past studies have shown that physically fit younger and older adults sleep better and that regular exercise can slow or even reverse age-related declines in thinking and memory in middle age, say the researchers.

How much activity does it take to reap the benefits? To find out, Benloucif and colleagues recruited their own “dream team” from independent-living retirement homes and residential apartments.

Four men and eight women aged 67-86 enrolled. Those who weren’t healthy had chronic but stable medical conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis. Some had no dementia; others had mild cases of dementia.

The Exercise-Socialize Strategy

Every day for two weeks, participants engaged in social and physical activity for 90 minutes. That may sound like a lot of time, but the pace was reasonable.

First, participants engaged in mild to moderate exercise for 30 minutes. They stretched, warmed up, and walked or practiced stationary exercises for the upper and lower body.

Next, they sat down and chatted for half an hour while playing cards or board games. Afterward, they walked rapidly, danced, or did calisthenics for 20 minutes at mild to moderate levels. A 10-minute cool down ended each session.

Participants tried the 14-day program twice -- once at 9 a.m. and once at 7 p.m. -- to see if morning or evening sessions yielded better results.

Several tools tracked sleep and mental abilities. Subjects kept sleep diaries and rated their alertness, sleepiness, weariness, happiness, sadness, calmness, tension, and vigor. They also wore wrist monitors to verify their sleep patterns.

Participants also took tests covering memory, math, spatial processing, symbol copying, visual search, attention, verbal reasoning, and speed and coordination. Tests were conducted with paper and pencil, and also on laptop computers. The researchers let the participants practice on the laptops for a day before the tests.

Reaping the Benefits

Participants said they slept better than before the study, and their test scores improved by 4-6 percent. Their wrist monitors didn’t confirm better sleep, but subjective sleep quality might be just as important, say the researchers.

Morning and evening sessions were both helpful, although evenings may have had more consistent effects. As long as seniors get regular social and physical activity, the time of day doesn’t matter much, the researchers conclude.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Benloucif, S. Sleep, Dec. 15, 2004; vol 27: pp 1542-1551. News release, Northwestern University.