It’s that time of year again when many of us prepare to “spring forward,” a yearly practice known as daylight saving time (DST). While setting our clocks ahead one hour in March may be an insignificant change for some, it can be a big adjustment for seniors and older adults.
Losing that one hour of sleep can actually cause sleep disruptions, an elevation in cardiovascular disease or heart disease, a rise in driving accidents and injuries, and drowsiness the next day, according to a recent study.
But these effects particularly add up and can impact elderly populations, Peter Polos, MD, a sleep medicine specialist and sleep expert at Hackensack Meridian Health, told Seasons.
“While the degree of effects varies individual to individual, the time change has a greater impact on the elderly than the non-elderly,” he said. “They’re even more vulnerable to changes in their sleep schedule because they have to get up an hour earlier and they’re getting up earlier to begin with. Now, they have more light exposure that makes the onset of sleep later in the evening.”
How does daylight saving time affect our body and sleep?
Many people are guided by circadian rhythms, the internal body clocks that give us cues on when to get up or go to bed. These rhythms also follow a 24-hour cycle and are dependent on light exposure. However, any disruption to this rhythm, like daylight saving, can throw off sleep cycles.
Furthermore, light suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone your brain releases in response to darkness.
“When we take someone and expose them to light earlier in the day, it’s going to delay your sleep onset because your brain now says, ‘There’s more daylight, I’ll hold off on releasing melatonin,’” Polos said. “That will then push you to sleep later in the evening.”
Not only does your circadian rhythm play a role in your sleep schedule, but the rhythm also controls the release of your body’s hormones that can influence mood and hunger, according to Northwestern Medicine.
Not only does your circadian rhythm play a role in your sleep schedule, but the rhythm also controls the release of your body’s hormones that can influence mood and hunger.
When circadian rhythms shift, especially when time is modified, some people can experience changes to their body, including:
- Cluster headaches – These are headaches that cluster on one side of the head and can cause unbearable pain for days or weeks.
- An increase in appetite – This is caused by an increase in ghrelin, a hormone that regulates hunger.
- An elevation in mood – Higher levels of sun exposure can increase serotonin levels, which can boost mood.
“Whenever the time changes, it may cause a little bit of confusion at first because of the inclination to want to go to sleep or want to sleep later,” Polos said. “But eventually we will have to adapt to that. I don’t think there are any real long-term effects caused by DST, but there could definitely be some short-term effects.”
Why is ‘springing forward’ more challenging on seniors?
For most adults, chugging an extra cup of coffee or energy drink can be enough to adjust to the time change, but that isn’t the same for older adults, especially those who suffer from chronic health conditions.
In fact, the transition to longer periods of daylight or darkness can potentially cause loss of sleep and confusion in seniors, Enmanuelle Pardilla-Delgado, PhD, research fellow in sleep medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told Seasons.
…the transition to longer periods of daylight or darkness can potentially cause loss of sleep and confusion in seniors.
“Older adults already have lighter sleep schedules and more fragmented (shallow) sleep. These conditions already set them up, making it harder for them to adjust to any sort of change,” he said. “That includes not only daylight saving but changing time zones as well.”
Pardilla-Delgado added some seniors who have chronic health conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s may also suffer sundowning, a state of confusion that typically occurs in the late afternoon and spans into the night.
Those who experience sundowning symptoms may have problems with sleeping, experienced anxiety, agitation, pacing and timing disorientation.
“If you’re setting the clock earlier in the spring, that means that time is not going to correspond as much with the actual sun going down,” Pardilla-Delgado said. “So, I think it’s very likely that you might have stronger symptoms of sundowning during this transition period.”
The Alzheimer’s Association states changes in sleep schedules can also impact some seniors’ ability to accurately take medications on time/correctly, and sleepiness can lead to falls or injuries.
However, there are ways to manage the transition and alleviate some of the potential challenges that stem from DST.
How can I adjust to the time change?
The good thing is potential disruptions set off by DST are not genetic, but environmental. This means people can easily adjust behaviors that may cause issues, such as a poor sleep schedule or drowsiness.
Here are some suggestions to help those most affected by the change to DST, as recommended by Polos and Pardilla-Delgado:
- Anticipate the change.
- Establish a sleep routine and stick to it.
- Avoid sleep disruptors, including caffeine, alcohol and medications.
- Exercise during the day or spend time outdoors.
- Three to four days before DST, gradually alter your bedtime to 15 or 20 minutes earlier.
- Practice good sleep hygiene, such as turning off electronics and sleeping in dark, quiet and cool environments.
If you find yourself or a senior loved one struggling with sleep issues related to DST, reach out to a medical professional to seek advice.