GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Taking time to go places, to visit friends or take a walk in the park, to socialize and meet new people or to simply stroll outside the familiar walls of our home, is more than a social necessity. It’s good for our physical and mental health.
Unfortunately, older adults who aren’t sleeping well don’t stray far from their home turf.
A study by a team of University of Florida Health researchers found that older adults who reported a worsening of their sleep patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic were apt to restrict their movement outside the bedroom and into the wider world. The association was seen even when controlled for the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus.
The findings were published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
“Reporting that sleep got a little worse or a lot worse during the pandemic was associated with more limited movement in their environment,” said lead author Emily Smail, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the UF College of Medicine’s department of health outcomes and biomedical informatics and an affiliate member of the UF Institute on Aging.
“Life space mobility is linked to many adverse health outcomes,” she added. “Preserving this mobility, especially during health threats like the COVID-19 pandemic, can help maintain the health of older adults and improve their well-being during a particularly stressful time.”
It’s important, Smail said, for people to continue to socialize and get out of the house in a manner that does not expose them to the virus. That, she said, can include meeting friends in the park, picnicking, hiking and other outdoor activities.
Smail said sleep disturbance is common during times of stress. Indeed, a recent study noted a 37% increase in rates of insomnia during the pandemic.
Smail said protecting sleep is an important intervention to help older adults maintain movement and avoid adverse outcomes. Those include depression, reduced cognitive function, obesity, a higher risk of becoming frail and even death.
“We need to move and socialize and maintain connections with other people to maintain health, both physical and mental,” Smail said.
The study used data collected in May and June of 2020 — near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — from a survey of more than 900 people ages 60 and older, with a median age of 73. Participants were asked about a variety of things, including sleep patterns and their movements before and after the start of the pandemic. Those movements were categorized in five “domains.”
So, for example, respondents were asked how often before and after the pandemic started did they visit rooms in their home outside the bedroom. That was expanded in subsequent questions to include the area immediately outside their home, such as the patio or garage or places in the neighborhood and, lastly, trips out of town.
Other questions focused on sleep, with participants asked, among other questions, how their sleep had changed during the pandemic.
Results showed a statistically significant association between sleep and life space mobility, with sleep quality diminishing after the start of the pandemic for up to 18% of study participants. Mobility dropped about 8% for people who reported their sleep after the pandemic was “a lot worse,” compared with those whose sleep stayed the same.
“These results align with previous literature suggesting that sleep is related to movement,” the study noted. “This relationship may stem from physical consequences of poor sleep, including fatigue, pain and inflammation that discourage mobility.”
Smail said lack of sleep might also affect a person’s motivation to attempt new or infrequently used methods of exercise and socialization.
“All this tells us we can look to sleep interventions that can improve sleep or encourage people to get outdoors to improve the health and social well-being of older adults,” Smail said.
Getting quality sleep, of course, is important even when the world isn’t held hostage by a virus, she noted. Sleep problems such as chronic insomnia can lead to poor health even during the best of times. And people who don’t feel well appear to stay closer to home, which could have a negative impact on their well-being.
Other study co-authors are Christopher Kaufmann, Ph.D.; Kira Riehm, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University; Mamoun Mardini, Ph.D.; UF graduate student Erta Cenko, M.S.P.H.; UF graduate research assistant Chen Bai; and senior author Todd Manini, Ph.D.
Kaufmann, Mardini and Manini are faculty members in the UF Institute on Aging.