Sleep Disorders

Updated 04 July 2014

Poor sleep a problem for middle-aged women

In a study, almost a quarter of middle-aged women report that their quality of sleep is less than good.

Almost a quarter of middle-aged women report their quality of sleep is less than good, according to a new study.

Sleep problems were tied to poor quality of life, chronic illness and medication use, researchers found.

The new study adds to earlier research by looking at common sleep problems among women before they hit menopause, according to Dr Päivi Polo.

She led the study at the University of Turku in Finland. "Typically we think that these are problems of menopause and thus menopause is the reason for everything," Polo told Reuters Health.

"Then we try to treat all menopausal insomnia symptoms with hormone replacement therapy... but because in some women the sleep problems are already evident before the menopause, the HRT may not alleviate all sleep problems and we physicians are wondering what to do next. After menopause, hot flashes and night sweats increase sleep problems," she said.

Sleep troubles not new

Polo and her colleagues surveyed 850 mothers about their sleep when they were 42 years old, on average. One third had a chronic illness, like diabetes or heart disease, and 28% were on regular medication.

Women most often reported waking up frequently at night. 60% of them had that problem at least once a week.

16% of women reported having difficulty falling asleep and 20% said they woke up too early in the morning on a weekly basis. Morning sleepiness was reported by 42% and daytime sleepiness by 32%.

Sleep troubles are not new for people of any age, but they do seem to be a bit more common among women. Hormonal changes related to menstrual cycles or menopause may be partly to blame, the authors write in Maturitas.

Occasional alcohol drinking was tied to better sleep quality and less falling asleep at work, they found. But women's weight and physical activity levels were not linked to sleep problems.

That might be because most women in the study were in the normal range for body size, Polo said.

Other studies have tied obesity to sleep problems like sleep apnoea.

Complex interaction

"There is likely a bidirectional association such that obesity may induce poor sleep, and short sleep may induce weight gain and subsequent obesity," Dr Helen Driver, who researches sleep at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, said.

"The study was not designed to assess much detail about the relationship between physical activity and sleep, which is a complex interaction depending on factors such as physical fitness, aerobic capacity, exercise type (aerobic, non-aerobic, stretching) and timing," Driver told Reuters Health in an email.

All sleep problems can affect daytime tiredness, work performance and quality of life, Driver said.

Women tend to get about seven hours of sleep each night during the week, but sleep needs are unique to individuals, she said. "Sleep is so crucial, since we sleep one third of our life and it affects so much of our health," Polo said.

Sleep problems can be a symptom of a disease or mental state, which doctors should keep in mind, she said.

Women having sleep problems should talk to their doctor and be sure to note any potential sleep-related side effects of medications, researchers said. "A good start is to keep a sleep diary and note any patterns or symptoms such as snoring, restlessness, morning headache," Driver said. "If there is concern, ask your family physician for a referral to a sleep centre for an assessment by a qualified sleep specialist."

(Picture: Woman sleeping from Shutterstock)


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Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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