As we age, it’s harder to get a good night’s sleep. We may find ourselves in bed for hours, unable to drift off to sleep. Or, we might find ourselves sleeping right away, but then experience a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night, perhaps waking up at 4am and then being stuck staring at the ceiling until dawn. Painful health conditions and some medications can interfere with sleep. And middle of the night bathroom trips can get us up out of bed, of course, and even if we are getting the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep, we might not feel rested for the next day.
Sleep experts turn to research to understand why it seems harder to sleep well as we age. Researchers in Berkeley used sophisticated brain imaging to observe the brains of sleeping elders, and noted that it is a two part problem. One, as we age, less of our sleep time is marked by the brain waves that help us remember things in the long term, and two, older brains have trouble balancing the chemicals that help us with transition into sleep and then waking up.
Sleep problems should not be taken lightly. Sleep deterioration has been linked to a whole host of health problems, such as dementia, heart disease, obesity, and stroke. Nearly every disease that kills people later in life has a causal link to lack of sleep. While life spans have improved overall, health spans haven’t quite kept up. Sleep, and improving sleep, is a pathway for helping to remedy that.