People have always been very aware of the immediate effects of poor sleep on their daily life, including being late for work or school, the dangers of driving, and inability to concentrate. Doctors and scientists are finally starting to better understand the science of sleep and its long term effects on parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, and brain. Up to 70 million Americans suffer from a variety of important sleep disorders including sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome. These disorders cost society a staggering $150 billion in lost productivity at work, $48 billion in damages from driving related accidents, and $16 billion in medical costs.
Fortunately, medicine is starting to recognize and treat these harmful conditions rather than treat them as mere annoyances. Academic and private centers are developing sleep labs were patients can be studied and treated for their various disorders. Sleep disorders have been linked to such important diseases as atrial fibrillation and other heart disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal reflux disease, and stroke among many others.
It is known that older individuals are more prone to sleep disorders. Doctors are beginning to recognize and more importantly treat the disorders in adults. Insomnia is an enormous problem for many individuals. Physicians are studying a variety of drugs in older adults including medications which use the effects of melatonin. Older adults begin to lose their “sleep architecture” as they age which involves the breakdown of their natural circadian rhythms (a person's internal sleep and wake-related rhythms). Newer melatonin receptor boosters, in forms such as the drug ramelteon, are released in short-acting forms at night. This allows the medicine to target unhealthy sleep patterns only during the times the patients require it so they can function during the day.
For those patients who do not think their sleep problem rise to the level of needing to visit a sleep specialist simple, almost common sense suggestions can help to improve the quality of one’s sleep. These include keeping a consistent sleep schedule, keeping the room dark when you sleep, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, and attempt to catch a nap whenever possible. Of course, these things are usually more easily said than done. However, if these changes are not possible or if in doubt, it is best to speak with your primary care provider about your sleeping issues who can help you decide if medication or more formal testing at a sleep study center may be of benefit.