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Elders too sleeping less due to gadget overuse

Elders too sleeping less due to gadget overuse

Older people like WhatsApp and Facebook as much as the next person but they also need to follow digital-wellness guidelines (like everybody else)
gadgets over use by elders affecting their sleep
Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K

Smartphones and apps are usually associated with adolescents and young adults. Research shows that staring at screens for long hours affects their sleep patterns. But the relationship between people and electronic devices is by no means limited to this age group — others too seem to have been pulled in.

“I watch videos on YouTube every day,” says Soubhagya Lakshmi, a 79-year-old homemaker from Mysore. “I listen to Carnatic music, watch cooking tutorials and browse gardening tips.”

Max India subsidiary Antara, a service provider for senior care needs, conducted a study on 2,000 people above the age of 55 in urban India. The results showed that 77% use messaging apps on their smartphones while 53% use their phones for work/professional purposes. WhatsApp and Facebook seem to be the most favoured apps among seniors.
However, older adults are not spared from the health issues and sleep problems caused by the overuse of gadgets.

A study by the University of California San Francisco on smartphone screen-time and its link with demographics and sleep shows that a longer average screen time is associated with shorter sleep duration and worse sleep efficiency.

Divakar, Soubhagya’s son and caregiver, says since entering old age she has filled her time with watching videos on her phone. “If her body permits, she uses her phone for long hours on her bed,” he says. “Sometimes, she delays going to sleep until 1am. Naturally, she wakes up later than usual.”

With age, the human body slows down. As physical activity reduces, older adults are more likely to develop metabolic and other chronic disorders like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Soubhagya, who has been living with diabetes and hypertension for two decades, has disturbed sleep because of excessive thirst and urination in the middle of the night.

“Older people sleep less; for them, four to five hours is considered good,” says Dr Ashok MV, professor of psychiatry at St John’s Medical College, Bangalore. “They also don’t get much physical activity, and this situation is worsened because you can’t use devices while walking around. Using these devices also induce arousal, which makes it difficult for them to fall asleep.”

But how does using smartphones during bedtime affect sleep? Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland at night. It helps maintain the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Light suppresses melatonin production, affects sleep-wake quality and causes stimulation, increasing alertness.

Being exposed to light during the night, particularly blue light that is emitted by smartphones, sends mixed signals to the circadian clock (an internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle with a duration of around 24 hours). The circadian clock works along the repeating day-night cycle. Exposure to light during bedtime confuses the body and might lead to decreased sleep quality.

“Viewing screens during bedtime leads to poor sleep quality and delays the onset of sleep [the time taken from being fully awake to sleeping],” Dr Ashok says. “Blue light indeed affects sleep and causes dryness in the eyes but there is no substantial evidence to suggest that it affects physical health otherwise. A maximum of two hours a day of screen viewing is recommended, excluding the use of devices for communication.”

As humans age, there is an increased risk of developing cataract — where the eyes’ natural lens turns densely yellow, clouding the vision. The size of pupils in older adults decreases, which means the eyes let in lesser light. Therefore, older people may find their sleep-wake cycle disrupted and their sleep quality decrease.

The elderly may reduce communication with family and friends because of retirement, illness or geographical distance. As a result, loneliness may drive older people to access the internet. In this case, how long they use the internet is as important as how they use it. A study shows that older adults who use the internet to communicate with their family and friends experience lower levels of social loneliness. Those who communicate with unknown people over the internet experience greater levels of family loneliness.

Dr Ashok feels that using technology purposefully may also improve sleep and quality of life. “Using electronic devices to be connected with family and friends, maintaining and fostering relationships has a positive impact on the elderly,” he says. “They can also get some physical activity with the help of health and wellness platforms.”

The World Population Ageing Report (2015) of the United Nations estimates that between 2015 and 2030, the number of people over the age of 60 will increase by 56%. By 2050, the population of older people will be 2.1 billion, greater than the number of adolescents and youth (10-24 years).

For this segment of the population that has integrated smartphones and other devices into everyday life, following digital wellness guidelines and maintaining sleep hygiene may be the priority.

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