Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as the Winter Blues, affects millions of people every year. A form of depression that occurs at the same time every year, with symptoms diminishing when Spring weather arrives, the likelihood of a SAD diagnosis increases as we age — and seniors who are housebound are especially at risk.
One of the most frustrating aspects of SAD is that it often mimics the symptoms of other illnesses. Seniors exhibiting symptoms of the Winter Blues have been diagnosed with everything from thyroid problems to mononucleosis, often because they don’t make the connection between their symptoms appearing every year and improving with the weather, and because the disruption to their sleep cycles, mood, and behavior is so extreme. For that reason, it’s important for seniors and their caregivers to understand the symptoms of SAD, so they can help ensure a correct diagnosis and the right treatment.
Understanding The Winter Blues
For many people, just the thought of Winter is enough to bring them down. The idea of being stuck inside, with short days, freezing temperatures, and mountains of snow and ice outside, isn’t always appealing. Winter weather can disrupt your usual routine, preventing you from visiting with friends or taking your daily stroll, which can lead to sadness.
It’s not just the disappointment and boredom that can come with Winter weather that causes, SAD, though. Although researchers aren’t certain of the exact cause, it’s believed that the disorder is due to changes in the amount of natural light exposure during the Winter season. The shorter days and longer nights, and in northern climates, the changes in the angle of sunlight, are disruptive to natural circadian rhythms, or the sleep-wake cycle. This disruption disrupts the body’s production of serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood. Without enough natural sunlight each day, serotonin levels fall, causing symptoms of depression — and significant changes to the sleep cycle.
SAD and Sleep
Although SAD causes many of the classic symptoms of depression — withdrawal, changes in appetite, changes in mood, loss of interest in activities — but changes to sleep patterns are some of the most common. The Winter Blues can cause increases in sleep for seniors, especially during the day, but it can also contribute to insomnia.
Many of these sleep changes are attributable to the changes in ambient light during the day. The human body is naturally attuned to the cycle of day and night. When that cycle changes, and there is more darkness than light or vice versa, the sleep-wake cycle is disrupted. This is only exacerbated by the natural tendency for circadian rhythms to chance as we get older. In general, as we age, we become sleepier earlier in the day, and wake up earlier in the day. But when the sun starts going down at 3 p.m., as it does in some northern climates, that could mean a very early bedtime for some people.
One of the most interesting aspects of the effect of SAD and sleep is the fact that many people report symptoms of insomnia during the Winter, when in fact, they don’t have insomnia at all. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found that people with SAD often report that they have insomnia, when they are in fact getting just as much sleep as usual. The difference? They typically spend more time in bed, because the seasonal changes cause them to spend up to four hours a day more resting than usual. The perception is that this extra time resting is insomnia — or sleeping to excess — when in fact they’re getting the same amount of actual sleep as usual.
Still, the fact that the Winter Blues can have such an effect on sleep patterns is cause for concern. There are things you can do, though, to support better sleep during the Winter, and reduce the effect of SAD.
Supporting Healthy Sleep
Encouraging healthy sleep for any age during the Winter months is important for maintaining overall well-being, but it’s especially important for older adults. It’s possible to reduce the symptoms of SAD and improve sleep with a few changes to the daily routine.
- Consider investing in a “happy light.” Using a special, full-spectrum lamp for a short time every day can help regulate the circadian rhythms and improve mood.
- Start the day with some exercise. Exercising each day is a key part of healthy sleep. Take a short walk outdoors in the morning if possible, or do a simple indoor workout during bad weather.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Create a sleeping area that’s conducive to sleep: Dark, cool, and comfortable. Establish a bedtime routine to encourage sleep; for instance, go to bed at the same time every night, take a warm bath, read, or use specific lotions to indicate it’s time for bed.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol intake.
- Avoid long afternoon naps. If you need to rest, only sleep for 20-30 minutes.
- Talk with your doctor. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression or trouble sleeping, your doctor can help by recommending lifestyle changes, further testing to rule out other issues, or prescribing medication.
The good news about the Winter Blues is that they are temporary, and when Spring comes, the symptoms will disappear. There’s no need to suffer in the meantime though. Understanding what’s happening and taking steps to get plenty of sleep can help alleviate the effects and keep you healthy all season long.