It was always understood that as you get older the need for sleep becomes less urgent and the body adjusts itself accordingly. This assumption is now a recognised fallacy as older people, if anything, require as much hours of sleep as their younger counterparts. Company executives or busy parents, who pack the most into their days are known to boast of the little sleep they get. This may not be a sign of competence – rather, it could be because the brain is showing signs of age.

A review has found that older people need just as much sleep as the young. However, they miss out on it because the areas of the brain that regulate sleep degrade over time. The neurons and circuits we need to rest effectively break down gradually, resulting in less non-REM sleep. This is the dreamless, deep stage of sleep that allows us to wake refreshed.

It has previously been thought that adults needed less rest from middle age, because they seem less affected by losing it. But US scientists think they may simply have adjusted to compensate.

Professor Matthew Walker, whose team at the University of California, Berkeley, looked at numerous studies said: ‘There is a debate whether older adults need less sleep or rather they cannot generate the sleep they nevertheless need. The evidence seems to favour one side – older adults do not have a reduced need, but instead they have an impaired ability to generate sleep.’

We start losing sleep in our mid-thirties, but the problem becomes considerably worse from the age of forty – when people find themselves taking longer to drift off and are woken more easily; a quarter of adults report daytime sleepiness severe enough to spoil their everyday plans. Around one in ten aged 55 – 64 say they are forced to take daytime naps.

A review published in the journal Neuron states that our drive to sleep therefore appears to remain the same as we age. And while sleep deprivation causes less of a drop performance among older adults than younger ones, older people often perform considerably worse under rested conditions. As a result, the team raises concerns that lack of sleep could lead to hefty mental and physical costs. Being deprived of rest has been linked to conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Type 2 Diabetes and Cancer.

Professor Walker added: ‘Sleep changes with ageing but it can also start to explain ageing itself. Major diseases killing us in first-world nations – from diabetes to cancer – now have strong casual links to a lack of sleep. All of those diseases significantly increase in likelihood the older we get, especially dementia.’

Whatever one thinks, rest is the key to fight disease and lack of sleep is the major factor. Therefore be prudent and organise your life accordingly…

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