It is a fact of live for many in the over-fifty set that with age comes difficulty in sleeping. There are a number of reasons for this. For some, it’s simply a matter of sleep not being high enough on our to-do list, with job, family and social responsibilities taking precedence no matter how many articles we read on the importance of getting our rest. For others it’s a matter of health. Many women over the age of fifty struggle with hot flashes and other hormonal side effects of menopause and its aftermath, while both sexes can struggle with chronic pain that makes sleep difficult. Add to this long list the fact that the risk of obstructive sleep apnea disorder becomes greater as we age and it seems like everything is working against us.
Unfortunately, none of these perfectly good reasons for not sleeping compare to the number of very good reasons why we should be sleeping. It seems like there’s a new report or study released every day, singing the praises of sleep and its role in helping us build memories, learn better, and even fight obesity. Now a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Sleep Medicine has looked specifically at the importance of sleep for those over fifty, and the results are worth paying attention to.
Researchers from the University of Oregon conducted the study. They analyzed data that had been collected over a long period of time on 30,000 adults from six different countries, including China, India, Ghana, South Africa, Mexico and the Russian Federation. What they learned was that in order for adults to continue to work at their highest possible level of cognitive ability, it was essential that they get between six and nine hours of sleep per night, and that those who got either fewer than six hours per night or more than nine hours per night suffered for it. When cognitive tests measuring for recall, verbal fluency and memory were administered to the study’s participants, there was a marked difference between the performances of those who fell into the six to nine hour performance group and those who fell outside of it, with those outside performing significantly worse.
The study revealed additional valuable information that the researchers will be looking at more closely in future studies. It noted that the male participants from all six of the countries included in the study enjoyed a better quality of sleep than was true of the women, but that in all but two of the countries, women slept longer than the men did.
Josh Snodgrass, one of the University of Oregon researchers, said, “Sleep is something that is important but often undervalued in our society. From doing this research and being familiar with the literature, an emphasis on sleep issues by the media in recent years is warranted. Every single piece of evidence that people look at now as they are investigating sleep and different health associations is all showing that sleep really, really, really matters. We’re just now scratching the surface on what patterns of sleep normally are, and also what are these associations between sleep and health issues.”
The conclusions drawn by the University of Oregon scientists are crucial, and their importance goes far beyond a matter of interest and scholarly pursuit. There have been several studies done over the last several years that have indicated that sleep deprivation produces brain wave patterns that are remarkably similar to those of patients suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, with many scientists theorizing that, among other things, sleep serves the specific purpose of clearing our brains of toxins that may otherwise produce plaques in the brain. Those studies sowed that during sleep, cerebrospinal fluid levels increase with the apparent purpose of washing away waste proteins that build up during the day. Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester and one of those who participated in that study, compared the process to that of a dishwasher.
Nedergaard’s study had looked at sleeping mice, and had noted that their brain cells shrank when they slept, making it easier for the fluid to circulate throughout the brain. Once awake the cells expanded and the flow slowed to its daytime levels, which are nearly nonexistent. They surmised that the process doesn’t occur during waking hours because it requires so much energy for the cleaning to take place. “It’s probably not possible for the brain to both clean itself and at the same time be aware of the surroundings and talk and move and so on,” Nedergaard said. When the scientists examined the waste products that were removed during sleep, they determined that one of them was beta amyloid, which is the same substance that has been identified with the plaques that form in the brains of those with Alzheimers.
Nedergaard’s study dovetails drew a straight line between lack of sleep and degenerative brain disorders, and offered the hope that when the process is better understood science may be able to control sleep in order to make sure that the essential cleaning process takes place. In the meantime, those who are over fifty and looking for a way to make sure that their cognitive abilities remain as sharp as possible would do well to keep the results of the University of Oregon study, and make sure that they are getting the suggested six to nine hours of sleep. In order to accomplish that, sleep experts have a few important suggestions, including getting at least thirty minutes of exercise a day, limiting your intake of caffeine in the morning and cutting it out entirely after 2:00 p.m., and checking with your physician to see whether any medications that you are taking on a regular basis might be keeping you awake.