Skimpy sleeping patterns are a widely-recognized source of stress and potential health concerns among older adults, but scientists struggle to figure out why aging appears to wreak such havoc on our circadian rhythm. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and the University of Toronto have pinpointed a probable cause of the constricted sleep patterns that accompany age: loss of brain cells.
Older adults with less activity in their ventrolateral preoptic nucleus (VLPO)—a group of neurons in the hypothalamus that controls wakefulness by releasing the neurotransmitters galanin and GABA—are far more likely to experience sleep troubles than those with more active VLPO regions, according to scientists who compared the number of neurons in an aging individual’s VLPO to the amount of time that person spent in restful sleep. Overall, adults who had 6,000 or more neurons enjoyed 10 percent more restorative snooze-time than those with 3,000 or fewer neurons.
“On average, a person in his 70s has about one hour less sleep per night than a person in his 20s,” says lead researcher, Clifford Saper, M.D., Ph.D., Chairman of Neurology at BIDMC, who explains that his team’s findings are the first to really highlight the connection between the VLPO and sleep in human beings. “The loss of these neurons with aging and with Alzheimer’s disease may be an important reason why older individuals often face sleep disruptions.”
Why you still need sleep—and how to get it
Lack of sleep has been linked with an increased risk of a variety of conditions, from obesity to depression to actual loss of brain tissue.
The belief that older adults don’t need as much sleep as those in their 20s and 30s is myth, according to Robert Oxeman, D.C., Director of the Sleep to Live Institute. Once an individual reaches adulthood, their sleep needs stay pretty stable.
So how do those of us who are older continue to obtain that ever-more-elusive good night’s sleep?
Tweaking environmental factors that contribute to insomnia is a great place to start, says Oxeman. Do you have a decades old mattress? Are you busy pinning new recipes on Pinterest or answering emails right before hitting the pillow? Is there too much light in the bedroom? All of these factors can contribute to difficulty staying and falling asleep.
Medications, lack of routine and untreated mental disorders such as depression may also play a role in disrupting your rest.
Check out these 11 Tips for the Best Sleep Ever for more helpful tricks.
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