TUESDAY, March 6, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- When faced with stressful situations, older adults who sleep poorly showed increased levels of a marker associated with inflammation, a new study finds.
The marker, called interleukin-6 (IL-6), has been linked to a variety of health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and psychiatric problems.
"Our study suggests that, for healthy people, it all comes down to sleep and what poor sleep may be doing to our physiological stress response, our fight-or-flight response," study author Kathi Heffner, an assistant professor of psychiatry at University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, said in a center news release.
The study was released online in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
The study included 45 women and 38 men with an average age of 61. Though all of the participants were in good health overall, about 27 percent were poor sleepers. Compared with good sleepers, those who slept poorly reported more depressive symptoms, more loneliness and more general stress.
At the start of the study, levels of IL-6 didn't differ between poor sleepers and good sleepers. However, when put through a battery of verbal and memory tests intended to stress them out, poor sleepers' levels of IL-6 spiked higher than that of the good sleepers.
The researchers concluded that older people who do not get adequate sleep may be at greater risk for mental and physical health problems because poor sleep changes how the immune system responds to stress, resulting in increased inflammation.
"This study offers more evidence that better sleep not only can improve overall well-being but also may help prevent poor physiological and psychological outcomes associated with inflammation," Heffner said.
Although a gradual decline in the immune system is a normal part of aging, the study authors concluded that treating sleep disorders among older adults could help prevent certain illnesses.
"There are a lot of sleep problems among older adults," Heffner concluded. "Older adults do not have to sleep poorly. We can intervene on sleep problems in older adulthood. Helping an elderly person become a better sleeper may reduce the risk of poor outcomes associated with inflammation."
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about understanding sleep.