Loss of sleep in the elderly may increase the risk of developing a wide range of mental and physical disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, say scientists who claim that deep slumber can act as a fountain of youth in old age.
As we grow old, our nights are frequently plagued by bouts of wakefulness, bathroom trips and other nuisances as we lose our ability to generate the deep, restorative slumber we enjoyed in youth, researchers said.
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They reviewed studies which show that the ageing brain has trouble generating the kind of slow brain waves that promote deep curative sleep, as well as the neurochemicals that help us switch stably from sleep to wakefulness. Though older people are less likely than younger adults to notice and/or report mental fogginess and other symptoms of sleep deprivation, poor sleep leaves them cognitively worse off, researchers said.
The shift from deep, consolidated sleep in youth to fitful, dissatisfying sleep can start as early as the 30s, paving the way for sleep-related cognitive and physical ailments in middle age.
“The parts of the brain deteriorating earliest are the same regions that give us deep sleep,” said Bryce Mander from
the University of California (UC) Berkeley in the US.
Ageing typically brings on a decline in deep non-rapid eye movement (NREM) or “slow wave sleep,” and the characteristic brain waves associated with it, including both slow waves and faster bursts of brain waves known as “sleep spindles,” researchers said.
Youthful, healthy slow waves and spindles help transfer memories and information from the hippocampus, which provides the brain’s short-term storage, to the prefrontal cortex, which consolidates the information, acting as the brain’s long-term storage.
“Sadly, both these types of sleep brain waves diminish markedly as we grow old and we are now discovering that this
sleep decline is related to memory decline in later life,” said Joseph Winer of UC Berkeley.
“Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep,” said Matthew Walker, professor
at UC Berkeley. “We have done a good job of extending life span, but a poor job of extending our health span. We now see sleep, and improving sleep, as a new pathway for helping remedy that,” he said.
Unlike more cosmetic markers of ageing, such as wrinkles and grey hair, sleep deterioration has been linked to
conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and stroke, researchers said. The study was published in the journal Neuron.
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