Sleep unlocks secret of youth for the elderly

Wed 19 Apr

As we age, our nights can become more eventful with regular toilet trips, spells of wakefulness and the many other annoyances that disrupt a good night's slumber. According to neuroscientists, this doesn't mean that the elderly need less sleep overall.

A recent review published in Neuron highlighted that the aging population are more likely to suffer memory loss as well as a wide range of mental and physical disorders, such as diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, depression and even cancer, if their sleep needs are unmet.

Dr. Bryce Mander of the University of California, a lead author of the paper, explains that "Like diet and exercise, sleep is a fundamental pillar of human health.  There isn't a single organ system in the body that is unaffected by sleep deprivation. . . obtaining adequate, healthy sleep can minimize the adverse consequences of genetic risk factors for medical conditions such as Alzheimer's disease."

Alterations in sleep patterns can occur for various reasons and the pharmaceutical industry has been quick to cash-in on this to provide solutions for dissatisfying sleep. Dr Mander and fellow authors warn against sedative sleep as it is a poor substitute for the natural sleep cycles required by the brain to function fully.

Dr. Rebecca Spencer, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, an independent researcher in psychological and brain science, explains, ". . .there is large variation in sleep and performance of older adults.  As such, you have some older adults that look very much like young adults while others show extremely impaired sleep and sleep function.  This [is] an important point for future studies - what is the secret for those older good sleepers and can it be captured and applied to preserve healthy sleep in others?"

The authors of the paper describe how the aging brain struggles to create the type of slow brain waves that encourage deep sleep, as well as the neurochemicals that aid in switching from rest to full wakefulness.

The regions of the brain that deteriorate earliest are the same regions linked to deep sleep. It is still unclear as to why sleep is not affected universally across the aging population but this study highlights the need for greater focus on sleep quality and not just sleep quantity.

Dr. Mander leaves us with some hope for a good nights kip, "The good news is that many sleep disturbances are treatable, and with treatment, the negative consequences of sleep loss can be mitigated."


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