As people get older, they tend to sleep less. The reason why can have a lot of factors. A combination of hormone imbalances, melatonin and other nutritional deficiencies, stress, lack of exercise, or illness can contribute to poor sleep. Just because poor sleep is common to people over age 50, that doesn’t mean it’s a normal part of aging or that it should be ignored. In fact, if you want to stay independent as you get older, you’ll want to know what researchers recently discovered…
Over-50: Poor Sleep Makes You Sick and Ages Your Brain Faster
I’ve found that many of the chronic conditions I see in my older patients all share something in common – poor sleep patterns. Researchers have confirmed that poor sleep is the base which several serious health conditions spring from. These include:
1. Hypertension. Harvard Medical School studies have shown that poor sleep results in lack of deep “slow wave” sleep. They feel that this is a direct cause of high blood pressure, especially in older men.
2. Obesity/Diabetes. These 2 go together because diabetes is often the end-result of obesity. Researchers at the University of Chicago have shown that sleeping less than 6 hours a night results in your body’s inability to secrete the hormone leptin, which turns off your appetite.
As a result, another hormone, ghrelin, predominates and causes you to have increased hunger – especially for fat-storing carbs. You eat more, you gain weight, you’re at higher risk for diabetes. All because you sleep less than 6 hours a night on a regular basis!
3. Heart Disease. This is often the end-result of hypertension, obesity and diabetes as studies out of Chicago Medical School have shown. Less than 6 hours of sleep per night puts you at a much higher risk for stroke and sudden heart attack.
4. Cataracts. Melatonin, a chemical secreted by your pineal gland, helps you sleep normally. It also acts as a major antioxidant in your body. Melatonin deficiency starts to occur gradually when you’re about 40-years-old and progresses with each decade. By the time you reach your 60’s, your melatonin levels can be significantly depleted. This is the age when I hear my patients complain of not being able to sleep very well. It’s also the same age when they begin complaining of the vision symptoms of cataracts. Not surprisingly, research out of Denmark has correlated the lack of melatonin with lack of sleep and the development of cataracts.
Here’s how cataracts and sleep are connected: When you sleep, your body does all its repair work. It removes free radicals from your body and tries to normalize all your systems. Poor sleep results in your body having a significantly decreased ability to perform these functions. As a result, a buildup of oxidizing, free radicals on the lens of the eye occurs and cataracts develop.
But now, researchers out of Duke University’s Graduate Medical school in Singapore (Duke-NUS), has found that lack of sleep also correlates to another significant health condition that commonly affects older adults. That is, brain aging, and everything that goes with it including:
In the past, researchers had found that the development of brain ventricle enlargement was usually always found in cognitive decline. Recently, researchers at Duke-NUS reported the results of a study they began 2 years ago on a group of older Chinese people. Their study questioned how much poor sleep in older people correlated to their cognitive decline.
Study participants were tested with MRI’s at the beginning of the study to measure brain volume. They also underwent neuropsychological tests which measured their cognitive (memory, learning, word usage, etc) functioning. The participants were also asked to keep a sleep journal of how much they were sleeping each night. At the end of the study, the results were significant.
The Duke researchers found that those study participants who slept less each night showed the faster development of brain ventricle enlargement and cognitive decline. The researchers concluded that short sleep duration is directly associated with faster brain aging.
You’ve likely experienced this poor sleep/poor brain function effect yourself. On the nights when you’ve slept poorly, how do you feel the next morning? Are you sharp, clear-minded, and energetic, able and willing to tackle your day? Or are you foggy-brained, can’t concentrate, and have a poor memory? And that’s just the result of 1 night’s poor sleep. Repeat this chronically and it could lead to some very significant cognitive decline that impacts everything you do.
The Magic Sleep Number and How To Get It
The Duke-NUS researchers found that the study participants who had the best cognitive performance slept at least 7 hours per night. You may need slightly more or less to maintain your optimum cognitive performance and slow brain aging. I recommend my patients take note of how they function and feel at the level of sleep they’re getting.
Here are some things that I’ve found work well with my patients who are having sleeping problems:
1. Melatonin. I feel that everyone over 40 needs a little replacement melatonin. In the book, The Melatonin Miracle, by melatonin-researchers, doctors Walter Pierpaoli and William Regelson, they recommend replacing melatonin according to your age, at bedtime.
40-44 0.5 to 1 mg
45-54 1-2 mg
55-64 2 to 2.5 mg
65-74 2.5 to 5 mg
75/over 3.5 to 5 mg
2. Fight Stress. I feel stress is a major contributor to sleep problems in all ages, but moreso as you get older. As many of my patients have told me, you just can’t seem to turn off the problems of the day to fall asleep. I recommend fighting stress in these ways:
a. Exercise. Aerobic exercise is a great stress buster. Walking, swimming, bicycling, running, etc., for at least 30 minutes a day, 4-5 times a week.
b. Decrease caffeine. You don’t have to give up your morning or midday coffee, but stop drinking caffeinated beverages at least 3 hours before you want to get to sleep.
c. Optimize nutrition. Many of my patients with sleep problems also have poor intake of nutrients that support nerve function, relaxation and sleep. These include calcium, magnesium and the B vitamins, especially B12. Be sure you’re getting about 1200 mg calcium, 250-500 mg magnesium, and 800 mcg of B12 each day. New research out of Oregon State University also shows that alpha lipoic acid can help promote better sleep. It was found in studies to help reset circadian rhythms that can occur with getting older and disrupt sleep. Get 200 mg a day.
Sleep is a major ally in maintaining your general health and preventing chronic and serious illness at any age. But, maintaining good sleep patterns, as research has shown, is critically important to your brain function as you get older. Sleeping well at night may mean the difference between needing assistance or staying active and independent well into your older years.