Review on March 19, 2009
A commonly noted side effect of the aging process is sleep disturbances, noted in both men and women and increasing with age. Fortunately, as people age they tend to sleep less, allowing for a natural ability to cope with these disturbances. Nightmares in particular can be distressing at any age, and pop up with increased frequency in the elderly. Adding to the distress level is the link, recently uncovered in research studies, of increased incidence of nightmares leading to irregular heartbeat and other cardiac difficulties.
Irregular heartbeat puts more than 850,000 Americans in the hospital each year. A normal heart rate can be anywhere from 50 to 100 beats per minute, thus anything outside of these bounds qualifies as irregular heartbeat. This can be of concern for the elderly, who suffer a greater risk of cardiac arrest or other heart problems that need to be monitored. While irregular heartbeat can be experienced by people of any age and indeed even occurs from time to time in those with what is considered a normal, healthy heart; irregular heartbeat can also be one of the first warning signs of a greater problem.
A large scale study was undertaken in the Netherlands in 2003 that uncovered a link between the sleep disorders occurring more frequently with age, such as nightmares, and this telltale irregular heartbeat. Out of a sample of 3100 adults of advanced years, 9 % of the men and 11.9 % of the women suffered from nightmares on a frequent basis. Correspondingly, 12.9 % of these men and 10.6 % of the women experienced chest pain, and there seemed to be a direct corollary between those men and women both who complained of nightmares and those who suffered irregular heartbeat.
Controls were given which disproved the use of cardiac drugs, frequently prescribed to combat irregular heartbeat, as a cause of the nightmares. Further investigation is necessary to uncover the precise link between nightmares and irregular heartbeat, which may help prevent more cardiac problems down the road.