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not sleeping well

You Can’t Blame Your Kids for Not Sleeping Well Anymore

You can no longer blame your kids for not sleeping well. (At least, not entirely.) In a review of research related to sleep and aging, published this month in the journal Neuron, experts posit that the reason we sleep less the older we get is because our aging brains lose neural links related to sleep cues. We register the signs of needing to sleep – our bodies’ fatigue, darkness – but that doesn’t translate to our brains shutting down for some ZZZ’s.

In other words, we turn into big babies.

“It’s almost like a radio antenna that’s weak,” said Matthew Walker, head of the sleep and neuroimaging lab at University of California, Berkeley, and one of the paper’s authors, in an interview with Popular Science. “The signal is there, but the antenna just can’t pick it up.”

The most exciting aspect of this, Walker says, is that while we used to think that sleep deprivation was a consequence of aging, we now think that insufficient sleep is perhaps actually a contributing factor to aging itself.

Your return to infantile somnolence starts as early as the late 20s/early 30s, and it’s all downhill from there. From the Popular Science report:

… by the time a person hits 50, they will only have about 50 percent of the deep sleep that they were getting in their early 20s. By 70, individuals have little, if any, high-quality deep sleep. Instead of going through the proper sleep cycles that ensure a well-rested night’s sleep, they wake up throughout the night, constantly inhibiting the deep sleep that’s essential to proper brain function.

Little wonder that lack of sleep has been associated with cardiovascular disease and obesity – diseases also associated with aging.

It should be noted that the research that seems to underpin this paper was conducted on mice – which, while promising and insightful, means many studies on human subjects will be needed before this argument is acceptable as fact. The exciting part, however, is that the research on mice gives scientists a specific place to start when it comes to humans, rather than shooting blindly in the dark.

It also suggests the possibility of focused therapies that can improve adult sleep and – in theory – extend life. So, while you’re probably already sleeping like a baby again (not, actually, a good thing), the day might not be far off when we sleep the untroubled sleep of a preteen.

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