Study Links Purpose in Life with Better Sleep in Older Adults

Older adults who say their lives have meaning are more likely to get a good night’s sleep and less likely to suffer from sleep disturbances, according to a new study.

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“If you have purpose in life, you have protection against sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome,” said Jason Ong, senior author of the study and associate professor of neurology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine.

As people age, the risk of sleep disturbances increase. “Older adults have a difficult time maintaining sleep, they wake up more in the middle of the night, and they have more trouble falling back asleep,” he said.

Sleep apnea is a sleep-related breathing disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. “The body isn’t getting proper oxygen and it causes brief arousal,” said Ong. “It’s associated with sleepiness during the day and not feeling refreshed when you wake up.”

Sleep apnea is typically treated with a CPAP machine that gently blows air into a person’s throat (through a mask worn over their mouth and nose) to keep their airway open as they sleep.

Restless leg syndrome is an “uncomfortable sensation” in the legs and the irresistible urge to move them, according to the National Institutes of Health. Medications can be used to treat the condition.

“It’s discomfort, not pain, and it’s relieved if people walk around and move around,” Ong said. “It happens predominately at night and it’s usually associated with trouble falling asleep.”

For the study, 825 adults between the ages of 60 and 100 completed surveys on sleep and purpose in life. The latter survey asked participants to rate their response to statements such as, “I feel good about what I’ve done in the past and what I hope to do in the future,” and “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.”

People who said their lives had meaning were 63 percent less likely to have sleep apnea and 52 percent less likely to have restless leg syndrome, according to the study.

Since both sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome have “a more biological cause,” Ong found the association between purpose in life and a reduction in those conditions “surprising.”

“When you think about it from the surface, it’s difficult to explain how meaning in life can protect you,” Ong said. “There are a couple of possibilities as to why: One of the most plausible is if you have more purpose in life, you’re more likely to take care of yourself and engage in positive health behaviors.”

Future studies should examine whether there’s an association between having a purpose in life and sleep quality in other populations, such as middle-aged adults who are “most at-risk of insomnia and sleep disturbances,” Ong said, adding there are no immediate plans for such a study.

The next steps in research could also examine the use of mindfulness-based therapies to target purpose in life and resulting sleep quality, said Arlener Turner, the study’s first author and former Northwestern postdoctoral fellow, in a statement.

Follow Kristen Thometz on Twitter: @kristenthometz

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