Aging and sleep
Last week we talked about the effect of aging on the brain.
And how you can fight back against its effects.
One thing we left out was the effect that sleep can have on the brain.
It can help with memory,
But some of the common complaints we hear from our athletes regarding sleep include:
“I just haven’t been able to sleep since I turned ___ years of age.”
“I used to be able to sleep but now I can’t”
“Older folks need less sleep”
Well, these things are not entirely true.
In fact, older folks still need those 7-9 hours of sleep for healthy,
efficient functioning of both the brain and the body.
Because when it comes to keeping the brain healthy,
And the body healthy, for that matter,
getting enough sleep is essential.
Now, we’ll give these non-sleepers some credit…
Sleep can decrease with age,
But it’s important to understand the root causes and some strategies to mitigate them.
This article will explore those things.
So, what’s the real issue here?
Sleep is awesome.
But, when life gets crazy,
When you’ve got a million things on the go,
When your schedule gets full,
When you feel like you have no downtime,
What is the first thing to go?
Usually your sleep.
So, first off, ask yourself, what’s the real issue here?
Am I sleeping less because of my age?
Or am I sleeping less because I’m slipping on some of the habits that contribute to a night of good sleep?
Let’s start off by attacking some low-hanging fruit….
Do you go to bed 7-9 hours before you need to wake up?
Do you have a pre-bed ritual?
Do you have caffeine <10 hours before bed?
Do you work out before bed?
Do you go on your phone <60 minutes before bed?
Are you watching TV before bed?
Do LED lights in your house shine on your face all evening?
Do you eat slowly and mindfully in the evening?
If you are not guilty of any of these and your sleep still sucks,
Aging and sleep
So, you still can’t sleep after taking the steps listed above.
The following will list out some possible culprits…
1. You could be obtaining less quantity and quality of deep, restorative NREM sleep
NREM sleep consists of 4 stages.
Stages 3 and 4 are the deep, restorative, regenerative stages of your sleep.
Unfortunately, you will have lost 60-70% of deep sleep by your forties and 80-90% by your 70s.
But why you ask?
There is this unexplained effect in the brain that happens with age where parts of the brain do not actually deteriorate uniformly.
The regions of the brain responsible for deep sleep,
the middle part of the frontal lobe,
Actually atrophy (get smaller) more than other parts of the brain.
2. You could be waking up more often
This is known as fragmentation.
This can be caused by many things,
but chief among them is actually getting up to go to the bathroom.
Fragmentation reduces sleep efficiency.
Sleep efficiency is simply the percentage of time you are asleep while in bed.
So, 8 hours in bed and 8 hours asleep = 100% sleep efficiency,
8 hours in bed and 4 hours asleep = 50% sleep efficiency.
Good sleep quality has about a 90% sleep efficiency.
By your 80s, that number has gone down to 70-80%.
Compare that to 95% as a teenager.
You can offset some of this fragmentation by reducing water intake in the evening,
ensuring your bladder is empty before bed,
Or talking to your doctor about other causes for your frequent urination.
3. You might be developing earlier bedtime preferences
Older adults actually experience a change to their circadian rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm is essentially your 24-hour rhythm.
It tells you when you want to be awake and when you want to be asleep.
It controls many processes in the body,
but one that pertains to sleep is the release of melatonin.
Melatonin is the “sleep hormone” that rises at night to facilitate falling asleep,
And should be low in the morning to facilitate waking up.
What you see with older adults is an earlier release of melatonin.
Thus, making them want to go to bed sooner.
This is mainly problematic because if older adults stay up watching TV
or go out to the movies and then fall asleep,
Falling asleep at bedtime may be more difficult.
Plus, the circadian rhythm wakes you up at 4 or 5 am regardless of how much you slept.
A way to counteract this earlier release of melatonin is to use bright-light exposure in the late afternoon.
To do this, you could go outside and get some sunlight,
Or use a SAD light.
Conversely, in the morning hours, wear sunglasses when you’re outside.
These things can help shift your circadian rhythm back.
Sleep and Alzheimer’s
Last week we talked about the effect of aging on Alzheimer’s disease,
But we wanted to discuss the role that sleep plays in the condition.
The research does suggest a strong link between sleep and Alzheimer’s.
Here’s what’s going on…
A build-up of a toxic protein called beta-amyloid occurs in the brain in Alzheimer’s.
Quality sleep appears to clean up the build-up of this toxic protein.
Other metabolic waste products that can contribute to the condition are also cleansed during deep sleep.
So, insufficient sleep at any time of your life may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s.
But, let’s say Alzheimer’s is already present…
You actually see more build-up of this protein in the areas where deep sleep is produced – the middle part of the frontal lobe.
So, the disease actually causes sleep to get worse.
So, what we have is a terribly vicious cycle where decreased sleep increases the risk of Alzheimer’s,
And Alzheimer’s decreaseses sleep.
There are other factors that contribute to Alzheimer’s, but this information is hard to ignore.
The take-away message here is to GET ENOUGH SLEEP now.
And if you’re having trouble getting sleep,
Try the suggestions above.
If those don’t work,
Talk to your doctor!
As as teen, you would sleep-in until noon.
As a toddler, you would take naps.
As a baby, you would sleep 18 hours a day.
But the craziness and busyness of life makes us sleep a whole lot less as an adult.
Now, this article outlined some circumstances that are outside of your control,
But how about the things that are in your control?
Are you using good sleep practices now before it’s too late?
Are you implementing the strategies that contribute to a good night’s sleep?
Again, shitty stuff happens when you age,
But, focus on the things you can control and TAKE ACTION on them NOW!