“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” – Irish Proverb
The evidence for the health benefits of adequate, restful sleep is overwhelming. Decades of research has shown that sleeping between 7 and 9 hours per night can relieve stress, reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, improve memory and cognitive function, and may even help with weight loss. (1) As many of us know by now, getting adequate, high-quality sleep is one of the most important, yet under-appreciated steps you can take to improve your overall health and wellbeing.
Yet for all we know about the benefits of sleep, there are millions of Americans who are still suffering from disordered sleep and insomnia. 35% of Americans report getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night, and 63% of Americans say their sleep needs are not being met during the week. (2, 3) The negative effects of sleep deprivation are serious: sleep durations that are consistently shorter than 7 hours in a 24-hour period are associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes risk factors, depression, automobile and workplace accidents, learning and memory problems, and an overall increase in mortality. (4) Some may argue that poor sleep can even undo the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise routine. (5, 6)
Could using electronics at night ruin your sleep and increase your risk of death and disease?
So what’s causing this epidemic of sleep disruption in our country? Many experts feel that our excessive use of communications technology (e.g. cell phones, laptops, television, etc.) is driving this significant level of sleep deprivation. If this is the case, it’s no wonder so many Americans struggle with poor sleep, since 95% have reported using some type of electronics at least a few nights a week within the hour before bed. (7) Checking email, watching your favorite late-night comedian, or responding to a text message in bed seems harmless enough, but the sleep disruption caused by these light emitting devices is significant and potentially harmful to your health.
Research has demonstrated that nighttime light exposure suppresses the production of melatonin, the major hormone secreted by the pineal gland that controls sleep and wake cycles. (8) Therefore, a reduction in melatonin at night is associated with subjective levels of sleeplessness. (9, 10) But melatonin suppression has far worse consequences than simply poor sleep outcomes: it has also been shown to increase the risk of cancer, impair immune system function, and possibly lead to cardiometabolic consequences such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and heart disease. (11, 12, 13) With serious consequences like these, preventing melatonin suppression should be a top priority in anyone’s healthy lifestyle.
Blue light and melatonin suppression
It is well established that short-wavelength or “blue” light is the most melatonin-suppressive; this is the type of light typically emitted by devices such as televisions, computer screens, and cellphones. (14, 15) To produce white light, these electronic devices must emit light at short wavelengths, close to the peak sensitivity of melatonin suppression. (16) This means that products such as tablets, smartphones, and other devices with self-luminous electronic displays are major sources for suppressing melatonin at night, thereby reducing sleep duration and disrupting sleep. (Figure credit: Wood et al, 2013)
Along with blue light emitted from electronic devices, research has shown that being exposed to normal levels of room lighting can have similar negative effects on melatonin. One study showed that one hour of moderately bright light exposure (1000 lux) was sufficient to suppress nocturnal melatonin to daytime levels. (17) Since melatonin suppression is intensity dependent, researchers suggest that lower intensities can have similar suppression effects at longer durations; for example, two hours at 500 lux would have a similar effect as one hour at 1000 lux. (For examples of lux values, check out this helpful chart.) This means that typical room light alone can have a similar suppressing effect on melatonin secretion as the light from backlit screens. (18)
How to prevent melatonin disruption (without tossing your iPhone)
Since it is predominantly the blue wavelength that is most affective in melatonin suppression, it stands to reason that blocking this wavelength of light should be enough to significantly reduce, or even eliminate the melatonin-suppressing effects of nighttime light exposure. (19) In fact, blocking blue light has been shown in several studies to be extremely effective in reducing the melatonin-suppressing effects of intense and/or blue light. (20, 21)
There are a few possible solutions for reducing your exposure to blue light at night. One that is commonly used in the ancestral health community is a program called f.lux, a program that makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day. This program can be installed on computers, iPads, and iPhones, and may have a significant effect on your melatonin secretion when using these devices at night. The best part about this program is that it turns on automatically in response to the daylight in your particular time zone, so there’s no need to remember any adjustments to the screen.
A better option, in my opinion, is to use amber-lensed goggles once the sun has gone down. These blue-blocking lenses are highly effective in reducing the effects of blue light exposure, and in most cases completely eliminate the short-wavelength radiation necessary for nocturnal melatonin suppression. (22, 23, 24) These goggles have been shown to improve sleep quality as well as mood, simply by blocking blue light and simulating physiologic darkness.
The main reason I recommend using these goggles is because normal room light alone is enough to suppress melatonin at night, and unless you’re shutting off all the lights in your house when the sun sets, you’re still at risk for disrupting your melatonin-driven circadian rhythms. (25) While f.lux is a useful tool for your backlit devices, it’s nearly impossible to address all sources of melatonin-suppressing light in today’s world of modern technology and late-night work and entertainment habits. Amber-colored goggles are one of the only tools available to completely eliminate all blue light exposure at night, without ‘going off the grid’ and powering down your entire house after 7 PM.
There are two excellent (and cheap!) options for amber-lensed goggles on Amazon.com. The cheapest and most popular option is the Uvex brand, but if you wear eyeglasses you’ll need to get a wraparound pair like the Solar Shield brand. I’ve had many patients swear by these goggles, and if you can get over the dorkiness factor, you may find they make a big difference in your sleep quality, and perhaps even your general health and wellbeing as well!
Have you ever used amber-lensed goggles, or f.lux, to improve your sleep quality? Share your experience in the comments below.
Like what you’ve read? Sign up for FREE updates delivered to your inbox.I hate spam too. Your email is safe with me.
This website contains affiliate links, which means Chris may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. You will pay the same price for all products and services, and your purchase helps support Chris‘s ongoing research and work. Thanks for your support!
Q. It seems that in every column, your solution is always for the elderly person to go into a retirement community. Isn't that self-serving, since you own a retirement community?
A. Actually, my husband and I own five retirement communities - four in Kendall and one in Homestead. They include the Palace Suites, which is an Independent Living facility for people who are basically healthy; three levels of Assisted Living facilities, and a nursing home.
In answer to your question, there may be a time when it is best for someone to live at home with the assistance of a home health aide, or to move in with their children, but those times are rare. In almost every case, a retirement community is the best choice for someone getting on in years. I'd like to take you through my reasoning, and hope I can convince you.
We are living in an age of the "Graying of America," where through a combination of medical advances and healthier lifestyles people are living longer than ever before. Not only that, by and large they are in pretty good shape, mentally sharp and able to do many physical activities.
Entrepreneurs such as ourselves have responded to this. The stereotype of awful facilities of decades ago are rare today. For the most part, today's retirement communities are bright and cheerful, and the people living in them are happy, energetic and full of life. They range from plain to luxurious, but you can live in relatively luxury for less than you think. A luxurious retirement is not just for the rich.
We have nearly 1,000 seniors in our facilities. I believe that every single one is better off with us than with any other option. If you ask them, most will tell you three things:
1. They wish they were still young and capable of doing all the things they did in their youth.
2. Given that they are in their late 70's, 80's or even 90's and that their reflexes have slowed, they are pretty happy to be in a retirement community.
3. "I wish I had done this sooner." Almost every one says that.
In our society the car is our passport to independence. As we age and our reflexes slow and our eyesight isn't what it used to be, driving becomes dangerous. As people get older:
a. They give up the car voluntarily.
b. They know they should give up the car, but stubbornly refuse.
c. They have a few accidents and the state takes away their license.
d. Worried children steal the keys and sell the car.
A person without a car has limited options living in their own home. They can walk to shopping and friends (but walking any distance is becoming more difficult), spend money and time waiting for cabs, become an impossible burden on their children, or just sit at home and wait for visitors.
Increasingly, they sit at home. The other options become just too troublesome. Friends die or move to retirement communities. Maybe the neighborhood is changing. So people sit at home and watch TV or look out the window, waiting for children and grandchildren to call or visit. That's a sad picture, isn't it?
Then the children suggest that an aide come in every day to help. Maybe the elderly person begins to have trouble with some of the basics of life - even minor problems like no longer being able to bend over to put on socks or shoes, or an inability to step in and out of the tub without assistance, become terrible obstacles.
Now the elderly person is faced with having a stranger intrude on their privacy, touching breakable treasures. Maybe she will even steal something! Or that's the common fear.
Since Mom is still unhappy, next the children suggest that Mom come and live with them. Everybody is smiling, but in all probability:
a. The child and his or her family really worry that Mom's presence will upset the family's daily hectic lifestyle. As much as they love Mom, they may be uncomfortable with the thought of the "good old days" where three and four generations shared a roof. Will Mom forget to turn off the stove and burn down the house?
b. Mom isn't happy about the prospect, either. She may have grown up in a house with grandparents under the same roof, but she has been running her own household for a long time. Moving in with her children represents a loss of privacy and independence. She has to live by her daughter's (or, worse, daughter-in-law's) rules. Besides, the one thing every older person hates more than anything is the prospect of being a burden on his or her children.
So, really, when somebody is 80, no longer can drive, and needs help putting on his or her shoes, what are the options?
As I said in the beginning, I believe that the retirement community is the only viable option in almost every situation. You can choose, if you wish, to consider it the "best choice among distasteful options," but I would argue that it's not a distasteful option at all.
Think of the people wasting away in their homes, staring out the window. Or living with their children in a fancy neighborhood, miles from any other 80-year-old, dependent on the children and grandchildren for mobility. That's terrible! There's no need for that!
In a retirement community they can have:
a. Privacy in their own apartment.
b. People to talk to and interact with just by stepping outside their door (and even romance, if they're in the market for that.)
c. Activities to keep them mentally sharp and physically in shape.
d. Meals, housekeeping, maintenance, utilities, etc.
f. A safe and secure environment.
g. Help in their activities of daily living available just outside their door.
h. Access to prompt assistance in a medical emergency.
i. Transportation to malls, supermarkets, doctor's offices, and planned outings to such places as movies, theaters and restaurants.
They can be close enough to their children for regular visits, weekend stays, and spending holidays together, but not living under the same roof.
The people in a good retirement community, even the ones in wheelchairs, are very much alive. They are having fun, and they look forward to the future. These people in their 80's and 90's are laughing and telling jokes. (Not all of them clean, by the way!) They are very different than the stereotype of old people. They may feel they have to act mature around the children, but not among themselves!
Yes, most have some physical limitations, but they live life to the fullest. They are as independent as it is possible to be, and they are pleased and proud that they are not burdens on their children. They all say: "My children don't worry so much about me anymore!"
So why is it so hard to convince an older person to move to a retirement community? Why do people like you think of it as a last resort rather than the best option?
Part of it, I think, is the terrible reputation that "old age homes" used to have. We try to find new words to describe the new reality. We call these "retirement communities" today. But still I think it will take years for the public to understand that it's very different today.
When you hear people say, "I don't want to live with old people," they just haven't seen how young at heart old people can be. Once they experience a quality retirement community, it makes an impact.