by Stephani Sutherland, PhD
As we get older, our sleep patterns naturally shift, but many people—as many as half of those over 55—develop sleep disturbances. When we don’t get enough sleep, we might feel groggy or grumpy, but the shortfall can also have serious health consequences. Experts recommend improving our “sleep hygiene”—habits that promote healthy sleep. But in a recent study by researchers at USC and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), mindfulness trumped sleep education for improving sleep in people over 55.
The researchers presented the study in April at the 2014 annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in Philadelphia, PA.
For the study, David S. Black, director of the BioMind Lab at Keck Medicine of USC, and colleagues recruited 49 volunteers aged 55-90 from the Los Angeles area who were suffering from sleep disturbances but not diagnosed with clinical insomnia. For six weeks, half the subjects attended a sleep education course, in which they learned from a trained health professional about the biology of sleep, stress-busting techniques, and how to promote better sleep, like turning off the TV well before bedtime and getting out of bed when you sleep eludes you.
The other half of the group trained in mindfulness meditation through the Mindful Awareness Practices program at UCLA. Under the tutelage of an experienced mindfulness teacher, students learned practices like sitting mindfulness, in which one sits quietly while keeping their attention on their breath; mindful eating, which focuses attention on the sensations experienced while eating a grape, for example; and walking meditation.
Whereas sleep improved only slightly in those with the sleep-hygiene training, mindfulness practitioners saw a 28% improvement in overall sleep quality. In addition to measuring sleep characteristics, the researchers assessed elements of mental health in the participants like quality of life, depression and well-being. These too improved more with mindfulness than with the educational course.
Six of the subjects in the mindfulness training also underwent brain scans before and after the training. The researchers used a technique called voxel-based morphometry to determine from the images the volume of gray matter in the cortex, the brain’s outer layer that gives rise to thought. Compared to the start of the study, after learning mindfulness the subjects had more gray matter in a part of the cortex called the right precuneus, which is key to our self-awareness. Some other areas, including the left prefrontal cortex and the right hippocampus, diminished over the six-week mindfulness course.
It remains unclear what exactly underlies the changes in cortical volume. The researchers hypothesize that the subjects’ lost sleep may have impacted the brain’s structure, and these changes might have been righted by mindfulness meditation, but the question will require further study.
So if, as you get up in years, your sleep starts to deteriorate, by all means clean up your sleep habits. But you might also consider a mindfulness course, according to the findings.