Better Sleep Can Reduce Worry and Rumination in Older Adults

April 9, 2024 • by Esther Robards-Forbes

People’s perceptions of their sleep also proves to have stronger associations with their worry and rumination than objective sleep quality monitored with a device.

Older man sitting in dark room with hand on back of neck looking tired.

It’s common knowledge that a good night’s sleep is restorative, but researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have found that it can also lessen worries and rumination the next day for older adults. The study is published in the April issue of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research

“This points to the critical role that sleep quality plays in emotional regulation in older adults,” said Zexi Zhou, a graduate researcher assistant in human development and family sciences and first author on the paper. “Good quality sleep, particularly REM sleep, appears to help older adults process their thoughts and emotions and reduce worry the next day.”

Worry and rumination could take many forms for the study participants, who were 65-89. We know from prior research that older adults worry about the future and ruminate about past events. Topics of worry can range from interpersonal tensions and financial strain to relationships and health issues. These types of persistent thoughts are often stressful and can contribute to health problems. 

The study found that older adults who overall experienced worry and rumination during the day were more likely to experience worse quality sleep that night.  Every morning, participants rated their sleep disturbances and the number of hours they slept the night before as well as how worried they were about things that might happen that day. And every evening, they reported their worry and rumination throughout the day. Participants also wore activity monitors to bed to track sleep quality. 

Surprisingly, researchers noted that how participants subjectively perceived their sleep quality was more indicative of their level of worry the next day, rather than their objective sleep quality measured by the monitors. 

“If someone believes they have had a poor night’s sleep, they may experience more worry and rumination, even though, according to the objective data, they had a better night’s sleep than they thought,” Zhou said. 

According to the National Institute on Aging, more than half of adults over 65 struggle with sleep quality because of physiological differences as we age. 

Researchers said understanding the connection between sleep and stress is critical to quality of life for older adults. 

“Worry and rumination can become a vicious cycle and a good night’s sleep can break that cycle,” Zhou said. 

Kira S. Birditt of the University of Michigan, Kate A. Leger of the University of Kentucky, and Karen L. Fingerman, professor of human development and family sciences at UT Austin, were also authors on the paper. The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.