Study: One in Five Americans Are Unpaid Family Caregivers

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 17, 2020

As the nation sees a growing number of aging baby boomers, workforce shortages in health care and long-term care settings, increased state funding for community-based services, and a growing number of seniors requiring assistance in their daily activities, caregivers are needed more than ever. According to a recently released report from National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP, an increasing number of unpaid family caregivers are stepping up to the plate to care for their older family members or friends. The caregiver report’s findings indicate that the number of family caregivers in the United States increased by 9.5 million from 2015 (43.5 million) to 2020 (53 million) and now encompasses more than one in five Americans (19 percent).

First conducted in 1997, with follow up surveys in 2004, 2009 and 2015, the Caregiving in the U.S. studies are one of the most comprehensive resources describing the American caregiver. Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 was conducted by Greenwald &a Associates using a nationally representative, probability-based online panel. More than 1,700 caregivers who were age 18 or older participated in the survey in 2019.

Demand for Caregiving Rising as Nation’s Population Gets Older

The 107-page Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 report also reveals that family caregivers are in worse health compared to five years ago. As the demand for caregiving rises with the graying of the nation’s population, the report calls for more be done to support this vital work.

“As we face a global pandemic, we’re relying on friends and family to care for the older adults and people living with disabilities in our lives,” notes C. Grace Whiting, JD, President and CEO of NAC, in a May 14 statement announcing the release of this report. “Caregivers are essential to the nation’s public health, and the magnitude of millions of Americans providing unpaid care means that supporting caregivers can no longer be ignored, she says, noting that report’s findings reveals that growing need.

According to Whiting, family caregivers care for more people than five years ago and they take on more care responsibilities as roughly one in four care for two or more people. “Many individuals are caring for a longer time, with nearly a third (29 percent) of caregivers nationwide reporting they have been caregiving for five years or more—up from 24 percent in the last study,” states Whiting.

Who are today’s caregivers?

This new caregiver study shows that 39 percent are men and 61 percent are women. The average age is 49.4 years. The profile of the family caregiver is also changing, too. While caregiving spans across all generations, Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 found more young people providing care, including 6 percent who are Gen Z and 23 percent who are Millennials. Nearly half (45 percent) are caring for someone with two or more conditions—a significant jump from 37 percent in 2015.

As to ethnicity, the caregiver report notes that six in 10 are non-Hispanic White (61 percent), 17 percent are Hispanic, and 14 percent are African American.

The report’s findings indicate that one in 10 of the caregiver survey respondents are enrolled in college or taking classes (11 percent), 9 percent have served in the military and 8 percent self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.

Caregivers in Poorer Health, Feeling Financial Strain

Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 also found that caregivers face health challenges of their own with nearly a quarter (23 percent of caregivers find it hard to take care of their own health and 23 percent say caregiving has made their health worse. The report also notes that personal finances are a concern for family caregivers: 28 percent have stopped saving money, 23 percent have taken on more debt and 22 percent have used up personal short-term savings.
Sixty one percent of the caregiver respondents work and have difficulty in coordinating care.

The May 2020 caregiver report states on average, caregivers spend 23.7 hours a week providing care, with one in three (32 percent) providing care for 21 hours or more, and one in five (21 percent) providing care for 41+ hours—the equivalent of a full-time unpaid job.

“The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the challenges family caregivers were already facing from a personal health, financial and emotional standpoint,” said Susan Reinhard, RN, PhD, Senior Vice President at AARP. “Family caregivers provide vital help and care for their loved ones, yet this survey shows that they keep getting stretched thinner and thinner. We must identify and implement more solutions to support family caregivers—both in the short term as we grapple with coronavirus and in the long term as our population ages and the number of family caregivers declines.”

: “Without greater explicit support for family caregivers in coordination among the public and private sectors and across multiple disciplines overall care responsibilities will likely intensify and place greater pressure on individuals within families, especially as baby boomers move into old age,” warns the report’s authors, calling on Congress and state lawmakers to develop policies that ensure that caregivers do not suffer deteriorating health effects and financial insecurity.

Thoughts from AARP Rhode Island…

“The wealth of information in this report is an essential guide to policymakers,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “It reveals important trends and underlines future needs. For AARP, it provides information on how, as an organization, we can best serve Rhode Island’s 136,000 family caregivers. The challenges they face vary, making it very important that we can provide focused resources that meet any one caregiver’s needs. The report’s overall takeaway – that the number of caregivers is rising dramatically – is a call for increased awareness and support. This responsibility starts at the very top of federal, state and municipal government and flows all the way down to family members who can better share caregiving responsibilities. Many will be asked to step outside their comfort zone, so we all will have to work together,” adds Connell.

Connell noted that the report points out the shift from traditional residential health care settings to community-based settings. “The research reaches a clear conclusion,” Connell observed. “Families will have to fill new roles, learn new skills and absorb more out of pocket caregiving expenses. This will create additional the stress for many family caregivers. That’s why it is so important that we develop the training, tools and other resources caregivers require.”

A 2019 AARP report, Valuing the Invaluable, calculated that Rhode Island family caregivers provide 114 million unpaid hours of care annually. Based on the average $15.76 per hour wages of paid caregivers, family caregivers represent an economic value of an estimated $1.8 billion.

The 2020 study was funded by AARP, Best Buy Health Inc. d/b/a Great Call, EMD Serono Inc., Home Instead Senior Care®, The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The John A. Hartford Foundation, TechWerks, Transamerica Institute, and UnitedHealthcare.

For a copy of Caregiving in the U.S. 2020, go to
https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2020/05/full-report-caregiving-in-the-united-states.doi.10.26419-2Fppi.00103.001.pdf.

Taking a Look at Physical Activity and Cardiac Health

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 8, 2020

Spring time is coming. Get out your walking shoes…

Physical exercise (that doesn’t have to be strenuous to be effective) can lead to longer, healthier lives, according to two preliminary research study findings presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention | Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic P Scientific Sessions 2020. The EPI Scientific Sessions, held March 3-6 in Phoenix, is considered to be the premier global exchange of the latest advances in population-based cardiovascular science for researchers and clinicians.

“Finding a way to physically move more in an activity that suits your capabilities and is pleasurable is extremely important for all people, and especially for older people who may have risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. Physical activities such as brisk walking can help manage high blood pressure and high cholesterol, improve glucose control among many benefits,” said Barry A. Franklin, Ph.D., past chair of both the American Heart Association’s Council on Physical Activity and Metabolism and the National Advocacy Committee, director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, Michigan, and professor of internal medicine at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine in Rochester, Michigan.

In one session, Dr. Andrea Z. LaCroix, Ph.D., of the University of California San Diego (UCSD), presented her study’s findings that showed the importance of walking, stressing that every step counts in reducing cardiovascular disease deaths among older women.

USCD’s study was supported by The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

According to the UCSD study’s findings, women who walked 2,100 to 4,500 steps daily reduced their risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases (including heart attacks, heart failure, and stroke) by up to 38 percent, compared to women who walked less than 2,100 daily steps. The women who walked more than 4,500 steps per day reduced their risk by 48 percent, in this study of over 6,000 women with an average age of 79.

LaCroix says that the UCSD study’s findings also indicated that the cardio-protective effect of more steps taken per day was present even after the researchers took into consideration heart disease risk factors, including obesity, elevated cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides and/or blood sugar levels, and was not dependent on how fast the women walked.

“Despite popular beliefs, there is little evidence that people need to aim for 10,000 steps daily to get cardiovascular benefits from walking. Our study showed that getting just over 4,500 steps per day is strongly associated with reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease in older women,” said LaCroix, the lead study author who serves as distinguished professor and chief of epidemiology at the UCSD. Co-authors of the study are John Bellettiere, Ph.D., mph; Chongzhi Di, Ph.D.; Michael J. Lamonte, Ph.D., M.P.H.

“Taking more steps per day, even just a few more, is achievable, and step counts are an easy-to-understand way to measure how much we are moving. There are many inexpensive wearable devices to choose from. Our research shows that older women reduce their risk of heart disease by moving more in their daily life, including light activity and taking more steps. Being up and about, instead of sitting, is good for your heart,” said LaCroix.

LaCroix’s study included more than 6,000 women enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative with an average age of 79 who wore an accelerometer on their waist to measure their physical activity for seven days in a row; these participants were followed for up to seven years for heart disease death.

This study was prospective, and half of the participants were African-American or Hispanic, stated LaCroix, noting that the use of an accelerometer to measure movement is a strength of the study. However, the study did not include men or people younger than 60, she said, calling for future research to examine step counts and other measures of daily activity across the adult age range among both men and women.

In another session, Joowon Lee, Ph.D., a researcher at Boston University (BU) in Boston, noted that higher levels of light physical activity are associated with lower risk of death from any cause.

According to the findings of BU’s study, older adults were 67 percent less likely to die of any cause if they were moderately or vigorously physically active for at least 150 minutes per week, (a goal recommended by the American Heart Association) compared to people who exercised less.

However, the researchers observed that, among the participants with an average age of 69, physical activity doesn’t have to be strenuous to be effective. Each 30-minute interval of light-intensity physical activities – such as doing household chores or casual walking – was associated with a 20 percent lower risk of dying from any cause, they said, noting that on the other hand, every additional 30-minutes of being sedentary was related to a 32 percent higher risk of dying from any cause.

“Promoting light-intensity physical activity and reducing sedentary time may be a more practical alternative among older adults,” said Joowon.

The BU research study, supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, evaluated physical activity levels of 1,262 participants from the ongoing Framingham Offspring Study. These participants were an average age of 69 (54 percent women), and they were instructed to wear a device that objectively measured physical activity for at least 10 hours a day, for at least four days a week between 2011 and 2014.

The researchers say that the strengths of this study include its large sample size and the use of a wearable device to objectively measure physical activity. However, the participants of the Framingham Offspring Study are white, so it is unclear if these findings would be consistent for other racial groups, they note.

Co-authors of the study are Nicole L. Spartano, Ph.D.; Ramachandran S. Vasan, M.D. and Vanessa Xanthakis Ph.D.

AAIC 2019 Concludes, Researchers Share Findings to Combat Alzheimer’s disease

Published in the Woonsocket Call on July 20, 2019

Thousands of the world’s leading professionals, involved in dementia care and neuroscience research, came at the Los Angeles Convention Center from July 13 to July 18, 2019, to attend the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® to learn about the findings of the latest Alzheimer’s disease clinical trial and a government-driven public/private initiative to speed them up.

AAIC® is considered to be the largest and most influential international meeting with a mission to advancing dementia research. Every year, AAIC® brings together the world’s leading basic science and clinical researchers, next-generation investigators, clinicians and the care research community, to share research findings that’ll lead to methods of preventing, treating, and improving the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

“It is clear, and has been for some years that the (Alzheimer’s) field needs to explore other options, and diversify the portfolio of targets. A renewed energy has been brought about by a fivefold increase in Alzheimer’s research funding at the federal level. These gains will propel already-established efforts by the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s Association and others to diversify (therapeutic) targets,” said Maria C. Carrillo, Ph.D., Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer, in a July 17 statement publicizing research findings from the international conference.

Hundreds of Findings of Clinical Trials Shared

According to the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association, “a record number of scientific abstracts – more than 3,400 – were submitted to AAIC this year, including 229 abstracts with results from or descriptions of Alzheimer’s clinical trials. AAIC 2019 also spotlighted three clinical trials using innovative methods and targets.”

At AAIC 2019, attendees were updated about the activities of the Accelerating Medicine Partnership-Alzheimer’s Disease (AMP-AD), a partnership among government, industry, and nonprofit organizations (including the Alzheimer’s Association) that focuses on discovering, validating and accelerating new drug targets. The Alzheimer’s Association says that this $225 million research initiative is made possible through the highest-ever levels of U.S. federal funding for research on Alzheimer’s and other dementias, approved and allocated in the last five years.

“This is an example of how the government and private entities and researchers can work together [via AMP-AD funded studies] on providing the resources necessary to expand our abilities to test new drugs and find a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, and, hopefully find a cure,” said Donna M. McGowan, Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Association, Rhode Island Chapter. “Rhode Island has tremendous researchers, and they are at the forefront of this initiative. they need the tools to increase their scope of work.”

Adds Maria C. Carrillo, Ph.D., Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer, “It is clear, and has been for some years that the field needs to explore other options, other avenues, and diversify the portfolio of targets. A renewed energy has been brought about by a fivefold increase in Alzheimer’s research funding at the federal level, achieved largely due to efforts by the Alzheimer’s Association, the Alzheimer’s Impact Movement, and our ferocious advocates. These gains will propel already-established efforts by the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s Association and others to diversify the portfolio of drug targets for the scientific community.”

The achievements of the AMP-AD Target Discovery Project were highlighted in a series of presentations by the leading AMP-AD investigators at AAIC 2019.

One study noted for the first time, 18-month results from an open-label extension of inhaled insulin in Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s including significant benefits for memory ad thinking, day to day functioning, and biological markers of Alzheimer’s.

Another described a newly-initiated 48-week Phase 2/3 clinical trial of a drug targeting toxic proteins released in the brain by the bacterium, P. gingivalis, generally associated with degenerative gum disease. Previous research findings identified the bacterium in brains of more than 90 percent of people with Alzheimer’s across multiple studies and demonstrated that infection may trigger Alzheimer’s pathology in the brain.

Can lifestyle Interventions Promote Brain Health?

There was also an update on the Alzheimer’s Association U.S. Study to Protect Brain health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk (U.S. POINTER) study, now up and running in multiple locations. The U.S. POINTER is a two-year clinical trial to evaluate whether intensive lifestyle interventions that target many risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia can protect cognitive function in older adults at increased risk for cognitive impairment and dementia. Researchers will compare the effects of two lifestyle interventions on brain health in older adults at risk for memory loss in the future. The U.S. POINTER is the first such study to be conducted in a large group of Americans across the United States.

The researchers say people age 60 to 79 will be randomly assigned to one of two lifestyle interventions. Both groups will be encouraged to include more physical and cognitive activity and a healthier diet into their lives and will receive regular monitoring of blood pressure and other health measurements. Participants in one intervention group will design a lifestyle program that best fits their own needs and schedules. Participants in the other intervention group will follow a specific program that includes weekly healthy lifestyle activities.

Laura Baker, Ph.D., associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine, and one of the principal investigators of the U.S. POINTER study, said, “Lifestyle interventions focused on combining healthy diet, physical activity and social and intellectual challenges represent a promising therapeutic strategy to protect brain health.”

“U.S. POINTER provides an unprecedented opportunity to test whether intensive lifestyle modification can protect cognitive function in older Americans who are at increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia,” Baker added.

“We envision a future where we can treat and even prevent Alzheimer’s through a combination of brain-healthy lifestyle and targeted medicines, as we do now with heart disease,” Carrillo said. “We hope to prevent millions from dying with Alzheimer’s and reduce the terrible impact this disease has on families.”

For more details about research findings presented at AAIC 2019, http://www.alz.org/aaic

Caregivers Flying Blind in Providing Complex Medical and Nursing Care

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 21, 2019

Half of the nation’s 40 million family caregivers are performing intense and complicated medical and nursing tasks, managing multiple health conditions for their family members and friends, says a newly published AARP report.

AARP’s special report, “Home Alone Revisited: Family Caregivers Providing Complex Care,” released April 17, 2019, takes a close look at specific medical and nursing tasks (including giving injections, preparing special diets, managing tube feedings and even handling medical equipment) that family caregivers are currently doing. It’s a follow-up report to AARP’s 2012 Home Alone Study that took the first in-depth look at how caregivers managed providing complex medical and nursing care that was formerly offered by trained professionals.

Changes in the Health Care System Can Support Family Caregivers

“This report shows the extent of complex tasks that millions of family caregivers are providing every day. They are largely alone in learning how to perform these tasks,” said Susan Reinhard, RN, Ph.D., Senior vice president and Director, AARP Policy Institute, in a statement announcing the release of the a 56-page report. “About half of family caregivers are worried about making a mistake. We need to do a lot more across the health care system—with providers and hospitals—to help support these family caregivers,” says Reinhard.

Adds Rani E. Snyder, program director at The John A. Hartford Foundation, “Family caregivers are the linchpin in our health care system, particularly for older adults,” “This study shines new light on the diversity of family caregivers performing complex tasks—from men to millennials to multicultural populations—and is a rallying cry for an all hands-on-deck approach to creating age-friendly health systems that better support and prepare these often forgotten members of the health care team.”

The new statistics in this report shed more light on the demands of family caregiving,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, a former nurse. “These described caregiving responsibilities sound like a task list for a team of home nurses, aides, dieticians, physical therapists and personal drivers who work without weekends off, much less vacations. Is there any question that people worry about making a mistake that compounds existing issues?,” she says.

“The takeaway is quite clear,” Connell added. “Caregiving is stressful and we need to expand efforts to provide assistance. And it’s a very big ‘we’ that I am speaking of. Families need to help out and share more responsibilities as well as offer respite for primary caregivers. Neighbors and extended family also can lend a hand. And we need government to continue to provide assistance through legislation that supports family caregivers. Caregiving responsibilities can be both daunting and exhausting. It’s the new reality. The good news is that as we raise awareness we can work together to improve the lives of caregivers, “ says Connell.

A Sampling of the AARP Report’s Findings

AARP’s Home Alone Revised Report report found that almost half of the caregiver respondents (48 percent) prepare special diets multiple times per day. Preparing these meals often involved taking precise measurements, following specific dietary guidelines, constant monitoring, and the use of special equipment for preparation and feeding.

Thirty percent of the respondents say preparing special diets are hard to manage, this being more challenging to men. Younger caregivers found it more difficult to manage this task than older caregivers.

The caregivers also reported that 54 percent of the survey’s respondents say they manage incontinence multiple times a day. Most say managing incontinence is more difficult than managing medications, helping with assistive devices and performing wound care. Seventy-six percent say they learned how to manage incontinence on their own. More than one in four would appreciate having assistance from another person to help.

According to AARP’s report, 70 percent of these caregivers are dealing with the emotional stress of managing pain relief in the middle of a national opioid crisis. More than four in 10 expressed concerns about giving the optimal dose. About four in 10 faced difficulties in controlling the pain of the care recipient.

Finally, 51 percent of the survey respondents assisted with canes, walkers, and other mobility devices while over a third (37 percent) dealt with wound care.

The researchers conclude that “uncomplicated world of ‘informal’ caregiving” no longer applies” to the nation’s caregivers. “In the current health care environment, it is presumed that every home is a potential hospital and every service that the person needs can be provided by an unpaid family member, with only occasional visits by a primary care provider, nurse or therapist,” say the researchers,” they say.

AARP’s Home Alone Revised Report is a must read for Congress and state lawmakers who can easily address the challenges caregivers face when providing medically complex care by crafting policies and programs that will provide support and resources to the nation’s growing number of caregivers.

This caregiving issue might be a good one for the U.S. Senate Special Committee Aging to study.

A Final Note…

AARP gathered the study’s data through a nationally representative, population-based, online survey of 2,089 family caregivers. This study employed an oversampling of multicultural groups, taking a closer look at difficult tasks, and putting greater attention on available resources and outcomes. The study’s sampling strategy ensured multicultural representation and investigated generational differences. Additionally, the researchers also explored certain topics in greater depth, including special diets, incontinence, pain, and the impact of social isolation on the caregiver.

The AARP Home Alone Study is a special report from the Founders of the Home Alone Alliance℠ (AARP, United Hospital Fund, Family Caregiver Alliance and UC Davis-Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing). With funding from The John A. Hartford Foundation to the AARP Foundation, the study took an in-depth look at the specific medical/nursing tasks that family caregivers are doing.

To read the full report, go to: https://www.AARP.org/ppi/info-2018/home-alone-family-caregivers-providing-complex-chronic-care.html.

Note: Updated April 22, 2018…

Report: Cognitive-Simulating Activities Good for Your Brain’s Health

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 6, 2017

Don’t expect playing “brain games” to have the long-term brain health benefits oftentimes reported in newspapers. According to a statement released last month by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), the scientific evidence supporting the benefits of “brain games” is at best “weak to non-existent.” But, the researchers say you can engage in many stimulating activities to help sharpen your brain as you age.

GCBH’s latest statement on “Cognitive Stimulating Activities” follows earlier reports issued by this independent organization created by AARP, advocating on behalf of its 38 million members with the support of Age UK, one the United Kingdom largest charities advocating for seniors. Previous areas included: “The Brain Body Connection;” The Brain Sleep Connection;” and “The Brain and Social Connectedness.”

The 25-page GCBH report, released on July 25, says that while many find “brain games” to be fun and engaging activities, oftentimes the claims made by companies touting the game’s cognitive benefits are exaggerated. The researchers noted that there are many ways to support and maintain your memory, reasoning skills, and ability to focus, such as engaging in formal or informal educational activities, learning a new language, engaging in work or leisure activities that are mentally challenging, and connecting socially with others.

Keeping Mentally Sharp

The report debunks “brain health” myths, too. Contrary to the many stories told about the brain as we age, the GCBH finds that a person can learn new things, no matter their age. Getting dementia is not an inevitable consequence of growing older. Older persons can learn a second language. And, people should not expect to forget things as they age.

“The GCBH recommends people incorporate cognitively stimulating activities into their lifestyles to help maintain their brain health as they age,” said Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., GCBH Chair, and Professor of Neurology and Director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “The sooner you start the better, because what you do now may make you less susceptible to disease-related brain changes later in life.”

“We know that the desire to stay mentally sharp is the number one concern for older adults,” said Sarah Lock, AARP Senior Vice President for Policy, and GCBH Executive Director. “Seeking out brain-stimulating activities is a powerful way for a person to positively influence their brain health as they age.”

GCBH pulled 13 independent health care professionals and experts together, who work in the area of brain health-related to cognitive functioning, to examine “Cognitively Stimulating Activities.” This group crafted the report’s consensus statement and recommendations after a close examination of well-designed randomized scientific studies published in peer review journals and studies replicated by other scientists.

Taking Control of Your Brain Health

The report concluded that people have control and influence over their brain changes throughout their lifespan. People can maintain their memory, cognitive thinking, attention and reasoning skills as they age by doing brain-stimulating activities. There is sufficient evidence that brain-stimulating activities are beneficial to staying mentally sharp over your lifespan

The researchers found through their literature review that training on a specific cognitive ability such as memory may improve that specific ability, but scientific evidence suggests you need to continue to apply that training to maintain or improve the ability over time.

The researchers also found that there is insufficient evidence that getting better at “brain games” will improve a person’s overall functioning in everyday life. Maintaining or improving your brain health is tied to the activity being “novel, highly engaging, mentally changing and enjoyable.”

The GCBH report suggested that just by learning a new skill, practicing tai-chi, learning photography, even investigating their family history, you can stimulate their brain and challenge the way they think, improving “brain health.” Also, social engagement and having a purpose in life, like “volunteering as a companion and mentoring others in your community,” can be mentally stimulating and improve your “brain health.”

But, the researchers say don’t forget physical activity, such as “dancing and tennis.” because the mental engagement and physical exercise can mentally benefit you, too.

The GCBH, founded in 2015, is an independent international group of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts working on brain health issues. Convened by AARP with support from Age UK, the goal of the GCBH is to review the current scientific evidence and provide recommendations for people so that they can maintain and improve their brain health.

The full GCBH recommendations can be found here: http://www.globalcouncilonbrainhealth.org.

Yes, routinely challenging your brain can lead to improved “brain health. As the old adage says, “Use it or lose it.”

Report Links Improved Brain Health to Sleep

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 16, 2017

Seven to eight hours of sleep per day may be key to maintaining your brain health as you age, says a newly released consensus report issued the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). The report’s recommendations, hammered out by scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts working on brain health issues at meeting convened by AARP with support of Age UK, in Toronto, Canada in late July 2016 Toronto, translates the scientific research evidence compiled on sleep and brain health into actionable recommendations for the public.

An AARP consumer survey released this month [in conjunction with GCBH’s report] found that 99 percent of age 50-plus respondents believe that their sleep is crucial to brain health, but over four in 10 (43 percent) say they don’t get enough sleep during the night. More than half (about 54 percent) say they tend to wake up too early in the morning and just can’t get back to sleep.

As to sleep habits, the adult respondents say that the most frequently cited activity that they engage in within an hour of bedtime are watching television and browsing the web. One-third keep a phone or electronic device by their bed. Nearly 88 percent of the adults think a cool bedroom temperature is effective in helping people sleep. Yet only two in five (41 percent) keep their room between 60 and 67 degrees. Finally, the most common reason people walk up during the night is to use the bathroom.

“Although sleep problems are a huge issue with older adults, it’s unfortunate the importance of sleep is often not taken seriously by health care professionals,” said Sarah Lock, AARP Senior Vice President for Policy, and GCBH Executive Director. “It’s normal for sleep to change as we age, but poor quality sleep is not normal. Our experts share [in GCBH’s report] the steps people can take to help maintain their brain health through better sleep habits,” said Lock, in a statement released with the report.

Sleep Vital to Brain Health

The new GCBH recommendations cover a wide range of sleep-related issues, including common factors that can disrupt sleep, symptoms of potential sleep disorders, and prescription medications and over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids. The consensus report is jam-packed with tips from experts, from detailing ways to help a person fall asleep or even stay asleep, when to seek professional help for a possible sleep disorder, and the pros and cons of taking a quick nap.

Based on the scientific evidence, the GCBH report says that sleep is vital to brain health, including cognitive function, and sleeping on average 7-8 hours each day is related to better brain and physical health in older people.

The 16-page GCBH consensus report notes that the sleep-wake cycle is influenced by many different factors. A regular sleep-wake schedule is tied to better sleep and better brain health. Regular exposure to light and physical activity supports good sleep, says the report.

According to the GCBH report, people, at any age, can change their behavior to improve their sleep. Persistent, excessive daytime sleepiness is not a normal part of aging. Sleep disorders become more common with age, but can often be successfully treated. People with chronic inadequate sleep are at higher risk for and experience more severe health problems, including dementia, depression, heart disease, obesity and cancer.

“A 2015 consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society mirrors the recently released GCBH report recommending that a person sleep at least 7 hours per night, notes Dr. Katherine M. Sharkey, MD, PhD, FAASM, Associate Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Human Behavior who also serves as Assistant Dean for Women in Medicine and Science. “Seven to eight hours seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ for sleep duration,” she says, noting that several studies indicate that sleeping too little or too much can increase risk of mortality.

More Sleep Not Always Better

Sharkey says that individuals with insomnia sometimes use a strategy of spending more time in bed, with the idea that if they give themselves more opportunity to sleep, they will get more sleep and feel better, but this can actually make sleep worse. “One of the most commonly used behavioral treatments for insomnia is sleep restriction, where patients work with their sleep clinician to decrease their time in bed to a time very close to the actual amount of sleep they are getting,” she says, noting that this deepens their sleep.

Sleep apnea, a medical disorder where the throat closes off during sleep, resulting in decreased oxygen levels, can reduce the quality of sleep and is often associated with stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, says Sharkey. While sleep apnea is often associated with men (24 percent), it also affects nine percent of woman and this gender gap narrows in older age, she notes.

Many older adults who were diagnosed with sleep apnea many years ago often times did not pursue medical treatment because the older CPAP devices were bulky and uncomfortable, says Sharkey, who acknowledges that this technology is much better today.

“We know how many questions adults have about how much sleep is enough, and the role that sleep plays in brain health and cognitive function,” said Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., GCBH Chair, Professor of Neurology and Director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “This [GCBH] report answers a lot of these questions and we hope it will be a valuable source of information for people,” she says.

Simple Tips to Better Sleep

Getting a goodnights sleep may be as easy as following these tips detailed in the 16-page GCBH report.

Consider getting up at the same time every day, seven days a week. Restrict fluids and food three hours before going to bed to help avoid disrupting your sleep to use the bathroom. Avoid using OTC medications for sleep because they can have negative side-effects, including disrupted sleep quality and impaired cognitive functioning.
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The GCBH report notes that dietary supplements such as melatonin may have benefits for some people, but scientific evidence on their effectiveness is inconclusive. Be particularly cautious of melatonin use with dementia patients.

Naps are not always a cure to enhancing your sleep. Avoid long naps; if you must nap, limit to 30 minutes in the early afternoon.

“There has been such a steady stream of revealing brain-health reports that it would seem people would change their habits accordingly,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “Taking active steps is what’s important – and the earlier the better,” she added.

“The personal benefits are obvious, but we should be aware of the cost savings that better brain health can produce. If people in their
50s get on board, the impact on healthcare costs and a reduced burden of caregiving 20 years down the road could be significant,” Connell added. “At the very least, those savings could help cover other rising costs. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to assess and improve aspects of diet and exercise. And we should not overlook the importance of sleep.”

The full GCBH recommendations can be found here: http://www.globalcouncilonbrainhealth.org. The 2016 AARP Sleep and Brain Health Survey can be found here: http://www.aarp.org/sleepandbrainhealth.