Gray Matters / Part 1: Sweet Dreams - Skip to content

Gray Matters / Part 1: Sweet Dreams


Neuroscientists at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital have discovered that people in their late 60s and early 70s are tops at mastering vocabulary. All those years of reading, running a business or a department, solving complex problems at work and in life, learning new technology, doing crossword puzzles, etc., pays off late in the game.

This is good news. But is it enough?

Poor quality sleep can be an elder’s undoing. When sleep is consistently interrupted, high blood pressure, heart disease — even dementia — can result. This is true irrespective of age. And the culprit invading a serene night’s rest isn’t an inconsiderate neighbor blasting heavy metal at 2 a.m.

It’s something more insidious. Our own breathing.

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Breath is Life — And Sleep

reverse mortgage newsAccording to The 8-Hour Sleep Paradox: How We Are Sleeping Our Way to Fatigue, Disease and Unhappiness by sleep medicine dentist Mark Burhenne, who wrote it after curing his own and his wife’s sleep disorders, constant sleep interruptions wreak havoc with our health.

He writes, “We age and die of inflammatory diseases… chronic inflammation speeds up the aging process and plays a key role in many ailments, including arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, fibromyalgia, osteoporosis, gingivitis, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, asthma, dementia, and even some cancers.

“One of the largest contributors to chronic inflammation is sleep-disordered breathing. When you start breathing better at night, everything else falls into place. The signs of sleep-disordered breathing show up first in the mouth, jaw and face.”

Yet the clues to sleep obstruction can be difficult to parse. Lights turned on for me when I read about dental erosion, which I began noticing in my thirties. But I never connected it with sleep issues. Most people wouldn’t. My dentist at that time was also unaware of the dental/sleep breathing connection; when I questioned why this was happening, he responded, “I don’t know; are you sucking on lemons?”

If, as a reverse mortgage professional, you feel a little off your game these days and chalk it up to “normal aging”, imagine what people in their 60s, 70s or 80s assume about their aches and pains or fatigue.

Signs of Poor “Sleep Ability”

Burhenne lists more than thirty symptoms of interrupted sleep breathing that many seniors (and younger people) may not associate with poor sleep, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Arthritis
  • TMJ, teeth grinding, jaw pain
  • Dry skin
  • Depression
  • Needing to urinate in the middle of the night
  • Dry mouth
  • Morning headaches
  • Mid-afternoon sleepiness

The causes of poor “sleep ability” include:

As a child:

  • Orthodontic treatment (which can narrow the airway)
  • Prolonged bottle feeding, thumb sucking, and sippy cups
  • C-section birth
  • A diet of packaged, easy to digest foods

As an adult:

  • Receding or “weak” chin
  • Large tongue
  • Allergies
  • Excessive BMI (body mass index)
  • Large neck circumference

Singing Yourself to Sleep

In addition to vocabulary wizardry (no doubt those participating in the MIT study were also sleep masters), neuroscience supports Burhenne’s work on the efficacy of unfettered breathing on our mental and emotional health. In a study at Northwestern University, scientists discovered that the rhythm of our breathing “creates electrical activity in the brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

“These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth…there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation.”

Because other health issues can impinge on our ability to breathe freely, awake or asleep, it’s easy to see how an older person might never make the connection between breathing challenges and poor sleep, memory problems, exhaustion, and joint pain.

While Burhenne does include a list of sleep devices that are approved for Medicare reimbursement, what if a senior is not interested in participating in a sleep study, or in being outfitted with a state-of-the-art appliance to improve their sleep ability? There is at least one low-tech solution that’s available to everyone, at no cost: singing.

Because singing involves deep breathing, it releases tension and strengthens the muscles in the roof of the mouth as well as in the throat — which in turn reduces sleep apnea.

Singing also “involves deep, rhythmical breathing. This action can strengthen the lungs, thus oxygen will flow more in the circulatory system and the brain. A better oxygen flow leads to a more regulated heart rate, lower blood pressure, and better mental alertness and cognition.”

So perhaps some of your HECM clients or prospects will want to join a group such as the Young at Heart Chorus, whose membership requirement is being at least 73 years of age. Not only will it be fun; the physical benefits may indeed lead to a healthier, happier old age.


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