It is often assumed that as we age, we need less sleep than the young. However, this is not the case. In fact, studies show that middle-aged people sleep less due to damage to the brain. Furthermore, many experts believe that people cannot get away with less sleep as they age. So, what led to the conclusion that older people need less sleep? One likely cause could be that people need less sleep because they are less likely to appear exhausted after missing out on it. They are seen to have less of a drop in their ability to carry out normal tasks than the young.
A review conducted by US scientists have shown that older people may have simply just adjusted to a life without proper rest. Yet while they may become accustomed to this lifestyle, evidence shows that older people are likely to have the same drive to sleep though their brain is less sensitive to it. This has both a mental and physical price, as a lack of sleep increases the risk of dementia and other illnesses.
Study author Professor Matthew Walker, of the University of California, Berkeley, said that sleep loss was not due to a busy schedule nor needing less sleep. Rather, as the brain ages, the neurons and circuits in that areas that regulate sleep slowly degrade, resulting in a decreased amount of non-REM sleep.
Adding to this, Professor Walker, wrote in the journal, Neuron that "sleep changes with aging, but it doesn't just change with aging, it can also start to explain ageing itself. There is a debate in the literature as to whether older adults need less sleep, or rather, older adults cannot generate the sleep that they nevertheless need."
He also said: "the evidence seems to favor one side - older adults do not have a reduced sleep need, but instead, an impaired ability to generate sleep. The elderly, therefore, suffer from unmet sleep need."
Scientists agree that many older people don't report sleep problems because their brains have become accustomed to being sleep deprived on a daily basis. Backing this theory up it was found that those who do not get enough sleep have lots of chemical markers of deprivation and tests showed their brain waves in sleeping are disrupted.
Changes in sleep quality may start as early as the mid-thirties, well before people notice that they are shifting to a more 'early-to-bed-early-to-rise' schedule or they may be waking up in the middle of the night more often. Women seem to experience far less deterioration in non-REM deep sleep than men, even though the changes to REM sleep are about the same in both genders.
Unfortunately, there aren't many treatments as yet available to tackle this decline in sleep quality. People are generally urged to avoid caffeine and alcohol and are advised to keep a routine. To conclude, Walker says that "more attention needs to be paid to the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disturbance if we are going to extend health span, not just lifespan."