Good Sleep, Good Friends, Good Health

Seniors don't need to do everything the health magazines recommend to stay fit. A new study with older women shows that either snoozing right or maintaining a good social network is enough to reduce levels of an inflammatory compound linked to bad health.

It's well known that lifestyle characteristics such as sleep and relationships can affect health. For example, seniors who sleep badly or have few close friends and relations generally have more health problems and die younger than their peers. But what's behind the trend? Previous research indicates than an inflammatory molecule in the body called IL-6 is present at high levels in people who sleep badly. Just as high cholesterol puts one at risk for heart disease, high IL-6 increases the risk of a variety of ailments associated with age, such as heart disease, Alzheimer's, and arthritis.

To see whether a good night's sleep and strong social networks decreased IL-6 levels in senior women, psychologist Elliot Friedman at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and colleagues surveyed 135 women between the ages of 61 and 90 about how well they slept and how good they felt about their relationships with other people. For example, women scored how much they agreed with sentences such as "I feel that I get a lot out of my friendships" or "I feel like I'm on the outside looking in." The women also slept with electrode-laden bandannas for four nights, which assessed how much deep sleep they enjoyed. The researchers then took blood samples to measure IL-6 levels.

Women who slept poorly and had few friends sported high IL-6 levels, whereas their well-rested, socially networked peers had almost no IL-6 in their body. In addition, either factor alone appeared to decrease IL-6 levels: IL-6 was virtually undetectable in women who slept poorly but had good friends or women who slept soundly but had a lame social life, the researchers report online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This study shows that both lifestyle factors have serious biological consequences, says sleep researcher Alexandros Vgontzas at Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania. "On a practical level, people should pay attention to how well they sleep and how good they feel," he says.

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Posted in Brain & Behavior, Biology