Last night I couldn’t get to sleep right away. My mind was caught up in a frenzy of ideas, to-do lists and I was just jazzed up. So I got out of bed and found a murder mystery to read. I added a melatonin tablet and voila – 30 minutes later I was feeling drowsy, ready for bed.
If only it could always be that simple to get a good night’s sleep, right? Most of the time our sleep in interrupted by pain, getting up to go to the bathroom multiple times, and dare I say it, our partner snoring so loudly it is impossible to settle down.
But sleep we must! Research suggests that as we age the need for high-quality, restorative deep sleep is essential for our wellbeing. You might even say that sleep is an essential part of healthy living, right up there with eating well and being active.
Insufficient sleep leads to cognitive decline and may also increase our risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and even depression. If you have ever had a bout of insomnia, you know it can make you feel inattentive, unable to focus, impacts your reaction time, affects your executive function, and makes you just plain cranky.
Studies over the last 50 years put the optimum time sleeping at between 7 and 8 hours per night, with those that do living the longest. That doesn’t mean you can’t get away with less sometimes, as long as you make the deficit up the next night by getting more sleep.
And it is not just how much sleep you get, but also the quality of that sleep. There is evidence that low-quality sleep fuels inflammation, which contributes to metabolic syndrome, a host of conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and even some cancers. Those who consistently don’t sleep well show inflammatory markers in their blood that put them at risk for these diseases (Sleep, Vol. 38, No. 2, 2015).
Too much sleep can also be problematic, yet scientists are unsure whether it is too much sleep, lack of quality sleep or some underlying health condition that is the cause. For example, sleep apnea (where you stop breathing throughout the night) can leave you feeling exhausted the next day.
As we age, quality sleep gets harder to come by. Most often it is related to a health condition that may cause pain or wakefulness at night. Some medications can make you feel agitated or make your legs restless.
However it is important to get a good night’s sleep as much as possible for all fo the restorative properties it offers. Sleep is the time our bodies shore up our immune system, store memories and repair tissues. Our minds, skin, and digestive system all benefit from a good night's sleep.
During deep sleep, our brain cycles through an electrical pattern of slow waves and quick bursts of brain activity called sleep spindles. Both the slow waves and the sleep spindles work in tandem to transfer memories from the hippocampus to the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) to consolidate them for long-term storage. Slow waves have been shown to influence metabolic regulation, cardiovascular health and attention. Sleep spindle activity is related to healthy cognition (Neuron, Vol. 94, No. 1, 2017).
Unfortunately, some time in our middle years the depth and length of these patterns shorten and we are staying in a light sleep state longer, depriving us of the restorative benefits of deep sleep.
This decline continues as the elderly experience a circadian clock slowing, causing us to want to go to bed earlier and get up that much earlier too. Quite the opposite of being a teenaged night-owl!
This is even more pointed in those who experience dementia. In fact, sleep disorders are now being looked at as early indicators of Alzheimer’s or dementia. There is evidence this link could go both ways, either Alzheimer’s impairs quality sleep and/or impaired sleep is cumulative and can be causal in brain disease. Sleep problems has been shown to be attributable to 15% of all Alzheimer’s diagnoses and sleep apnea is associated with an earlier onset of cognitive decline.
Chronic inflammation that arises due to lack of sleep can effect the brain neurons and it is also suggested that sleep helps remove the beta-amyloid proteins that clump together in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s.
Don’t panic just yet. A few nights of poor sleep is not sending you down the road to dementia. However, it does appear that good sleep habits over time play a role in our overall health when we are older. Sleeping well impacts our entire body, all our bodily systems and the restorative properties we gain from a good night’s sleep are priceless.
If you would like to get my Sleep Audit to find out what you can do to improve your chances of a good night’s sleep, contact me.
For further reading on this subject, here are some additional resources:
Sleep and Human Aging
Mander, B.A., Winer, J.R., & Walker, M.P. Neuron, 2017
Sleep: A Novel Mechanistic Pathway, Biomarker, and Treatment Target in the Pathology of Alzheimer's Disease?
Mander, B.A., et al. Trends in Neurosciences, 2016
Sleep, Cognition, and Normal Aging: Integrating a Half-Century of Multidisciplinary Research
Scullin, M.K., & Bliwise, D.L. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 2015