Using technology for a better understanding of sleep

Sleep is an essential part of health and well-being – it helps with cognition, mitigates depression and boosts the immune system. Age can impact sleep, and for older adults who live with dementia, sleep can become even more disrupted. Researchers at the RIA are finding ways to use technology to track sleep patterns to better understand how aging impacts sleep and help older adults get a good night’s rest.

Jen Boger, Schlegel Research Chair in Technology for Independent Living, is leading the project. “We know that people living with dementia may struggle with tracking their sleep. They may have a hard time remembering when they fall asleep or if they woke up in the night.”

Many smart watches are designed to automatically track the sleep of the person who is wearing them and are increasingly being worn by older adults living with dementia in long-term care to try and get a sense of when and how people are sleeping. This kind of wearable technology provides an easier way to track sleep compared to the traditional method, which is to have team members write notes in a log every half hour.

Boger and her research team were not only curious as to how well these wearables worked for older adults, they wanted to take this idea a step further. They set out to track circadian rhythms, the biological processes that influence sleepiness and wakefulness, to see if this could be used to help understand sleep better. Knowing that wrist temperature is influenced by these biorhythms, they decided to explore the use of wrist temperature bands as a way of determining sleep cycles.

The results confirmed that sleep and circadian rhythms change as we age, but what they didn’t expect to find was the commercially available smart watch they tested that calculates sleep based on movement wasn’t very accurate for older adults, especially those living with dementia. They also found that temperature on its own is a good indicator, but using both movement and temperature together is more accurate than either measurement on its own.

“The great thing about smart watches is that many older adults already wear watches, so it is easy to make the switch to a smart watch. They aren’t bulky and don’t typically stop older adults from following their regular sleep and other habits.”

Since they found that the older adults in the study didn’t mind wearing the wristbands, and in fact many chose to keep the smart watches, Boger is optimistic that this a workable way to monitor sleep. Results from this research will help researchers and health care providers better understand how sleep changes, which will allow the development of better strategies to support sleep. Boger and her team also hope these findings will encourage smart watch companies to consider how to create products that are better able to detect sleep for older adults, including those living with dementia.

This story was featured in the August issue of RIA’s Research Matters. Read other issues of Research Matters.