Myth of the elderly early risers
Pensioners need just as much sleep as younger people - and lack of it is causing illnesses, study finds
It is a myth that people need less sleep as they get older - they just struggle to get it, new research suggests.
The review by the University of California found that the ageing process restricts the abilty to produce deep restorative sleep, leaving middle aged and pensioners sleep-deprived - and at greater risk of illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease.
It is often said that people need less sleep after they hit middle age, with many older people rising earlier.
But the research found that in fact, the quality of sleep older people received was dramatically lower, with brain scans showing disrupted electrical patterns, and changes which are associated with sleep deprivation.
As the brain ages, the neurons and circuits in the area that regulate sleep slowly degrade, resulting in a decreased amount of deep sleep, experts said.
This is particularly crucial because lack of such - non-REM (dreamless) sleep is associated with memory and cognition, and linked to conditions including Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
"Sleep changes with aging, but it doesn't just change with aging; it can also start to explain aging itself," said co-author Matthew Walker, who leads the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.
The review examined whether older people need less sleep, as had long been argued, or whether they are actually unable to generate sleep that they badly needed - before concluding that in fact, that sleep deprivation is a common side-effect of ageing.
"The evidence seems to favor one side - older adults do not have a reduced sleep need, but instead, an impaired ability to generate sleep. The elderly therefore suffer from an unmet sleep need,” Prof Walker said.
Changes in sleep quality start as early as the mid-thirties, the review found - well before participants noticed a shift to an"early-to-bed-early-to-rise" schedule or reported waking more often in the night.
And problems were worse in men.
Those struggling with sleep problems should follow standard “sleep hygiene” advice, researchers said.
This included avoiding coffee from late afternoon onwards, cutting out alcohol, and keeping a regular sleep diary to see what differences changes in habits could make.
But they said none of the measures could stop the impact of age-related sleep changes, warning against reliance on sleeping pills, which sedate brains, rather than restoring youthful sleep patterns.
Researchers said the problem had “flown under the radar” in much sleep research because older people were so used to being short of sleep. But electrical patterns in the brain and chemical markers of sleep deprivation were clear, they concluded.
Prof Walker said more effort was needed to tackle the problem because sleep deprivation takes such a toll on health.
"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, and especially in dementia,” he said.
"Sleep decline is one of the most dramatic physiological changes that occurs as we age, yet that demonstrable change is not part of the health conversation today," the sleep scientist said.
"We need to recognize the causal contribution of sleep disruption in the physical and mental deterioration that underlies aging and dementia. More attention needs to be paid to the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disturbance if we are going to extend healthspan, and not just lifespan."