Seeking Fountain of Youth? Try Sleep

As you get older, you’re more likely to sleep less and wake up more. What are you to do?

Loss of sleep has consequences. A recent review of scientific literature published in Neuron found that aging adults may be losing their ability to produce deep, restorative sleep. And that affects both their mental and physical abilities. After all, it’s restorative slumber that wards off mental and physical ailments.

“Sleep changes with aging, but it doesn’t just change with aging; it can also start to explain aging itself,” says review co-author Matthew Walker, who leads the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. “Every one of the major diseases that are killing us in first-world nations – from diabetes to obesity to Alzheimer’s disease to cancer – all of those things now have strong causal links to a lack of sleep. And all of those diseases significantly increase in likelihood the older that we get, especially dementia.”

This is a problem that’s been long unexamined in sleep research. Although older people hardly ever report on surveys feeling sleepy or sleep-deprived, that may be because they’re used to it. And yet when scientists measured older adults’ brain waves they found that key electrical patterns in sleeping brains were disrupted, and they had chemical markers of sleep deprivation.

Sleep Shifts at 60? Nope, Try 35.

Changes in sleep actually start as early as your mid-30s.

“It’s particularly dramatic in early middle age when it starts to begin,” says study co-author Bryce Mander of University of California, Berkeley. “The difference between young adults and middle-aged adults is bigger than the difference between middle-aged adults and older adults. So there seems to be a pretty big change in middle age, which then continues as we get older.”

But do older adults simply need less sleep? Is that why they sleep less?

No, there are biological factors at play: neurons and circuits that regulate sleep in the brain slowly degrade as the brain ages, causing a decrease in non-REM sleep – the very sleep that helps our memory and cognition. “Older adults do not have a reduced sleep need, but instead, an impaired ability to generate sleep,” Walker says. “The elderly therefore suffer from an unmet sleep need.”

Take These Sleep Steps

If the elderly are sleeping less, it is imperative to address sleep before other health needs. Here’s what can be done:

Don’t assume that because you sleep less you need less sleep.

  • Stick to healthy good sleep habits, such as limiting caffeine in the afternoon, keeping a regular sleep schedule and avoiding substances like alcohol, which can interrupt sleep.
  • Don’t rely on sleep aids as a first line of defense. They may not provide the restorative sleep needed for good health because most don’t promote restorative REM sleep, according to an article published in the Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
  • Many people assume poor sleep is a hallmark of getting older, and forget to include it in their list of symptoms. Talk to your doctor and healthcare provider about your sleep quality, since improving it may be the first line of defense against memory problems.

Walker says we need to pay more attention to sleep disruption and how it contributes to physical and mental deterioration in older adults. Especially if “we are going to extend health-span and not just lifespan.”

Rest up and read these tips to help you prepare your retirement bedroom.