If you’re a person who needs complete silence in order to get a good night’s sleep, read no further. If you find, on the other hand, the slightest noise –- the garbage truck outside, a dog’s bark, a child’s sigh in the night, a spouse’s snoring –- is a call to attention, then a white noise machine may be for you.
There are many benefits to a good night's sleep: It can keep your heart healthy, help reduce stress, and ward off depression, though it may be tougher to achieve as you age. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, older adults who don’t sleep well at night are more likely to have problems with memory and attention, as well as being at greater risk of nighttime falls. Sleep duration -– that is, how much you sleep each night -- has also been linked to longevity. The most beneficial night’s sleep is probably 7-8 hours in length; in large epidemiological studies, people who get significantly less (fewer than 6) or substantially more (over 9 hours) have been shown to be at greater risk of dying during the study period.
If you have trouble falling asleep, or are easily awakened during the night, many sleep specialists recommend trying a sound conditioner, or white noise machine. In his book Say Good Night to Insomnia, insomnia researcher Gregg Jacobs says the devices work two ways: by blocking distracting noises, and by producing soothing sounds that are relaxing and help to induce sleep.
"I am a true believer," says psychiatrist David Neubauer, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center. "I sleep with white noise myself. While most of the evidence showing that these machines help people sleep is anecdotal, we know they provide a kind of ‘sound cocoon,’ which is very soothing. When it’s completely quiet, people with insomnia or other sleep difficulties focus more closely on small noises, which can interfere with their getting to sleep."
In a 2008 Consumers Reports survey of 2,021 problem sleepers, sound machines were found to work almost as well as medication in getting respondents to sleep.
Commercially-available machines provide a variety of sounds, and can be an inexpensive solution.
White noise machines: “White noise” is the result when sound waves of a broad spectrum of frequencies are combined, forming the type of constant hum a fan creates when it’s blowing air.
White noise machines may generate their own white noise, or play it back in a loop, which is an endless, repeating, sound recording.
Research has shown that white noise can help patients sleep through the type of sounds that occur in a hospital Intensive Care Unit setting by helping to block out ambient noise. Sleep loss in the ICU has been the focus of some research, because a patient’s recovery may be negatively impacted by a lack of sleep. In one sleep lab study, recorded ICU noise was played over a sound system while subjects tried to sleep. The number of awakenings was significantly reduced when white noise was added.
White noise is also recommended to help people with tinnitus, a hearing condition of ringing, hissing, or other noises that can affect older people. Tinnitus is often more noticeable at night because there are fewer competing sounds to distract the person from it. White noise can help mask the ringing.
Nature sound machines: Many people find nature sounds, like rainfall and ocean waves, more relaxing than white noise. The repetitive or consistent sound is easy for the brain to ignore. This may not be true for machines that feature oceans with intermittent bird calls, or foghorns, for example.
Can TV or radio serve the same purpose? Better to turn them off. While some people have become accustomed to falling asleep with the news or music in the background, a part of your brain may still be paying attention, which can interfere with sleep.
Are these machines a "crutch" for poor sleepers? Neubauer says there’s no evidence of dependency or withdrawal when the machines are absent. He compares using them to making any other change in your sleeping environment, like getting a better mattress, cooling the room’s temperature, or turning off the lights.
When to Seek Outside HelpWhile it’s true that sleep tends to deteriorate with age, sleep disturbances in older people are often due to other health problems, like cardiac or pulmonary diseases, chronic pain, or psychiatric issues like depression. Age-related changes in circadian rhythm, which is the body’s daily biological cycle, may also be to blame.
If you have tried addressing sleep hygiene by cutting back on caffeine and having a regular bedtime routine, and it’s not enough, talk to your health-care provider. They’ll want to rule out sleep apnea, which can have the same symptoms of fractured sleep, or difficulty falling asleep, as insomnia.
Hublin C, Partinen M, Koskenvuo M, Kaprio J. “Heritability and mortality risk of insomnia-related symptoms: a genetic epidemiologic study in a population-based twin cohort.” Sleep. 2011 Jul 1;34(7):957-64.
Stanchina ML, Abu-Hijleh M, Chaudhry BK, Carlisle CC, Millman RP “The influence of white noise on sleep in subjects exposed to ICU noise.” Sleep Med. 2005 Sep;6(5):423-8.
Tinnitus. Medline Plus Public Information Sheet. Accessed January 17, 2012.http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003043.htm