Next time your significant other (or, let’s be real, your mom) decides to shake you awake way too early in the morning so you get up and “seize the day” or get the worm or whatever, make sure you bookmark this new study on your smartphone, which we know is sitting right there on your nightstand. Or lying on the pillow beside your sleep-addled head.
In a new review of recent sleep studies, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that older peoples’ brains have problems creating the slow waves that give you deep, restful sleep. Older brains also don’t do a great job of formulating the neurochemicals needed to smoothly transition from slumber to wakefulness. These parts of the brain that degenerate as we age are the exact same regions that help us achieve curative sleep, said the authors, and are related to the decline in memory that comes with getting older, along with other health problems.
While the research focused older people, researchers hypothesized that because older people tend to sleep less and more fitfully, getting more sleep over a lifetime has health consequences for people of all ages. “Nearly every disease killing us later in life has a causal link to lack of sleep,” said senior study author Matthew Walker, Ph.D., and a professor of psychology and neuroscience Berkeley. “We’ve 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.”
But even though older folks can have a tougher time getting to sleep (and staying asleep), they still need to get in a quality, deep slumber without distraction or interruptions. The researchers caution against reaching for pills if you start having problems sleeping, which can begin as early as your 30s. “Sleeping pills should not be the first-line kneejerk response to sleep problems,” Walker said. “Sleeping pills sedate the brain, rather than help it sleep naturally…don’t be fooled into thinking sedation is real sleep. It’s not.”
To get your best sleep, experts agree that you should create a cool, dark environment along with turning off any glowing smart devices at least an hour before turning in, allowing one hour to pass for every alcoholic drink you had, and abstaining from caffeine at least six hours before you hit the sack.