Why you sleep less as you age

Sleeping helps us process memories, learn new skills, and stabilize our mood. Yet as we get older, a good night's sleep becomes a rare commodity. A typical 25-year-old plunges half a dozen times into several hours of sustained deep sleep throughout the night. In contrast, the average 70-year-old brain shuffles quickly in and out of moderate-level sleep, spending only a few minutes in the deepest phase of rest and far more time in shallow sleep or complete wakefulness. The transition between being asleep and awake also becomes far more abrupt as we age.

In a study published in the journal Neuron, researchers found that insomnia occurs because certain brain mechanisms change as people age. In various experiments that compared the amount and type of chemical signals involved in sleep in younger and older mice, neuroscientists found that the chemical signature was the same regardless of age.

The problem is that the receptors in the brain that receive that signal decline with age, as stated by one of the scientists who ducted the study. This can help deduce that the aging brain has the same sleep cues inside of it, but it’s unable to pick up on those cues.

“It’s almost like a radio antenna that’s weak," said Matthew Walker, the head of the sleep and neuroimaging laboratory at Berkeley and the study's lead author. "The signal is there, but the antenna just can’t pick it up.”

In the elderly, difficulty sleeping could also be a side effect of other problems like muscle spasms, depression, anxiety, and respiratory disorders like sleep apnea, which becomes more common as we age.

These are often treatable conditions that can go undiagnosed when people assume sleeping problems are simply a natural byproduct of old age. Other chronic conditions, such as arthritis, can disrupt sleep, so it's important to make sure these issues are not simply dismissed as run-of-the-mill insomnia.

Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto

LatinAmerican Post | Luisa Fernanda Báez

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