Aging, Restorative Sleep, and Sleeping Pills

Changes in sleep are part of the aging process.  Suddenly, we find ourselves waking up several times a night for bathroom breaks, pain, or other nuisance that prevents deep, restorative sleep that was easily obtained in youth.  The question is whether older people need more sleep, or if there is perhaps another solution.

Researchers from UC Berkeley published an argument in the April issue of the journal, Neuron, stating that poor quality sleep in the elderly contributes to their higher risk of memory loss, cognitive dysfunction, and a number of mental and physical disorders.

Senior author of the article, Matthew Walker, noted that every disease found in the elderly is linked to loss or lack of sleep.  Dr. Walker is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley.  In the article, he stated that the medical field has made significant advancements that have extended our life span, but unfortunately, they have yet to extend our health span.  It is now clear to those in the industry that improving sleep is a way to fix that issue.

Sleep loss as we age

Loss of sleep is not like other, more obvious, signs of aging, such as wrinkles and gray hairs.  Instead, sleep deterioration is linked to heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, stroke, and obesity, and it is a problem that lurks in the background, getting worse more slowly so as not to be noticeable until much later.

Changes in sleep patterns can start as early as one’s 30’s, which is plenty of time for sleep-related cognitive and physical conditions to surface and wreak havoc.

Risk of Sleeping Pills

Dr. Walker warns that the overuse of pharmaceuticals for insomnia are not a good substitute for natural sleep cycles.  The brain physiologically needs that natural, restorative sleep to function properly.  Sedation is not the same thing as sleep, he notes.

Researchers out of UC Berkeley took data from some of their own studies, as well as other international papers and found that the aging brain cannot generate slow brain waves needed for deep, restorative sleep.  Furthermore, they are unable to produce adequate amounts of the neurochemicals that help us go from sleep to wakefulness.

Unfortunately, it appears that the first part of the brain to suffer from the aging process is the same region that allows for deep sleep.  Deep non-REM sleep, or slow-wave sleep, is known to decline as one gets older.  This type of sleep includes both slow waves and the bursts of waves known as sleep spindles.

Normal or healthy slow waves and spindles help with memory consolidation, which is the process of taking the input from the part of the brain that stores short-term memory and sending it to the part of the brain that consolidates the information and preps it for long-term storage.

Sleep disturbances exacerbate dysfunction in Alzheimer's

Unfortunately, both types of brain waves get significantly less during the aging process, and science has now discovered that sleep loss is directly related to memory loss in later years.

Furthermore, the neurochemicals that help us keep a regular sleep pattern and allow us to go from deep sleep to wakefulness are not as regulated as in a youthful brain.  These chemicals include orexin, which helps us wake up, and galanin, which helps us sleep.  Older adults who report a disrupted sleep-wake cycle also report daytime fatigue and restless nights.

It is notable that not all older adults suffer from sleep changes.  Some people seem to age more successfully than others, and some people seem to sleep better as they get older.  That is another topic of research the team at Berkeley is considering.

In recent years, people have started to move away from pharmaceutical help for sleep.  They are leaning more toward alternative and natural measures to improve sleep quality, like taking melatonin promotes s and using electrical stimulation to amplify brain waves.  They do the latter with the use of acoustic tones on a metronome to slow wave rhythms.

Researchers warn that advertising alternatives over prescriptions can be quite the challenge, since millions are made every year on sleep-related drugs.

Dr. Walker does note, however, that the American College of Physicians does not recommend taking sleeping pills for a long time.  These drugs should not be the knee-jerk reaction to sleep problems.  Sleep pills are designed to sedate the mind rather than help naturally induce sleep, so there must be better options for restoring sleep in the elderly.

The goal for the researchers at Berkeley is to change the culture of sleep, and to do that we must understand the difference between quantity and quality sleep.  The conversations in the past have been focused on the number of hours that are needed; however, you can sleep for a dozen hours and still wake up exhausted and groggy.  Further studies will follow.


3 thoughts on “Aging, Restorative Sleep, and Sleeping Pills

  1. Jeffrey B Perchuk Reply

    I am 69 and over the last few years I have noticed a qualitative change in my sleep habits, which, as it turns out, is for the worse. Unfortunately, I suffer from both sleep apnea and OAB (overactive bladder) which makes getting restorative, healthy sleep difficult and it has wreaked havoc with both my mind and body. Recently, I have been reading articles which identify a definite link between sleep apnea and OAB which led me to think that a sleep study might be appropriate in order to investigate this further.

    I had the study done about a month ago and sure enough, I was diagnosed with OSA or obstructive sleep apnea which became apparent when my wife began to complain that it disrupted her sleep. Consequently, the sleep study confirmed my suspicions and as a result,
    I consulted a sleep doctor and it also important to say that when I first identified this problem eight years ago, I was first given a C-PAP machine with which I did not comply because of the inconvenience of wearing a mask that I found restrictive and unpleasant, as do many people. Apparently, compliance with this machine is difficult for long term use. As an alternative, I was given the TAP-3 mouthguard which worked for a while but I stopped wearing it because I had mistakenly assumed that it was not needed any longer. That turned out to be a big mistake because the problem only resurfaced a while back which led me to decide upon a mouth guard instead of a C-PAP machine for obvious reasons.

    Right now, I am being fitted for a Sleep Herbst Appliance which is what a dental technician recommended for me after a close examination of my mouth, throat and larynx. Medicare will only
    pay for the Herbst, whose cost is between $1800.00 and $2,000.00 on the average and mine ought to be ready in a week or two, after they take the impression of my mouth so it can be customized for me.

    After suffering with sleep apnea and OAB for a few years now, I regard the Sleep Herbst Appliance as good a remedy for OSA. I doubt that it will take much effort to become adjusted to it, if you compare it to the average C-PAP machine, which, for me, was both uncomfortable and ineffective.

  2. Peggy Cudahy Reply

    Mr. Keefe,
    I have been a registered polysomnographic technologist (I do sleep studies) for 14 years. My best advice to you is to see a good pulmonologist. If he recommends a sleep study choose an accredited sleep center, not a sleep lab. A sleep center can diagnose and treat more sleep disorders than a sleep lab which only focuses on 5 sleep disorders. I think the more comprehensive testing in a sleep center will suit your needs best.
    Good luck!

  3. Bernard Keeffe Reply

    I am 92. I have had sleep problems all my life. Despite this I have had a good career in music performance as a conductor and in music education on TV. Lack of sleep is worse now. I use melatonin to get to sleep but I usually wake after about four hours to use the bathroom – I then can’t get back to sleep.

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