Remember your teenage years when getting next-to-no sleep had next-to-no effect on you the next day? If you’re anything like me, there was a fateful all-nighter in your early to mid 20s that made it very clear you could no longer hang.
If you now treasure your sleep, good. Getting quality sleep could be the secret to staying mentally and physically healthy longer as an adult.
“Nearly every disease killing us later in life has a causal link to lack of sleep,” said Matthew Walker, a University of California, Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience to the university. “We’ve done a good job of extending life span, but a poor job of extending health span. We now see sleep, and improving sleep, as a new pathway for helping remedy that.”
You might have heard your parents or grandparents talk about how they don’t sleep very well now that they’re older. It’s kind of generally accepted that older adults don’t need as much sleep as younger ones. But research from UC Berkeley suggests that’s not true—and that brand of fitful, non-restorative sleep of older adults can begin as early as your 30s.
“The parts of the brain deteriorating earliest are the same regions that give us deep sleep,” study author Bryce Mander said to the university.
Developing a habit of getting enough deep sleep every night now can help you as you get older by warding off Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and stroke, the research shows. It’s not just about the number of hours you get per night: failure to get quality sleep can make you more vulnerable to these illnesses as you age.
“Your sleep behaviors throughout your life, we have reason to believe that they probably effect how you age,” said Joe Winer, another author of the study, to Rewire.
There’s no secret to getting the deep, restorative sleep that the researchers have linked to prolonged health. It can be achieved simply by giving yourself enough time every night to reach it, Winer said.
But easier said than done. Waking up throughout the night can make it much harder to get high-quality sleep, he said.
“The longer you can stay asleep without interruption, the more of this healthy, deep sleep you’re going to get,” Winer said.
As a young person, there are lots of external reasons you might not be getting the sleep you need (stress and your phone being two of them). But as we get older our brains have a harder time generating the slow waves and faster “sleep spindle” waves that promote deep sleep and the neurochemicals that help you move from sleep to wakefulness (which leaves some older people groggy during the day and restless at night), the researchers wrote in their paper.
Slow waves and sleep spindles help transfer memories and information from your brain’s hippocampus, which provides short-term storage, to the prefrontal cortex, where information is consolidated and stored long-term. So, decline in sleep quality as we get older is actually linked to memory loss, the researchers found.
Even if you’re getting eight hours every night, getting low-quality sleep is “just as harmful as not getting eight hours per night of sleep,” Winer said.
What are some signs you’re not getting the right kind? Waking up during the night is a giveaway. So is having trouble falling asleep at the beginning of the night and not feeling refreshed in the morning, he said.
“People should try to get the best quality sleep they can in addition to getting a good quantity of sleep,” Winer said. “We know that that can improve the brain’s health throughout the aging process.”
If you struggle to get quality Zs, the researchers warned against turning to sleeping pills, which “sedate the brain” rather than providing deep sleep, they said.
“The American College of Physicians has acknowledged that sleeping pills should not be the first-line kneejerk response to sleep problems,” Walker said.
Prescription and over-the-counter sleeping aids don’t help our brains replicate the natural sleep cycles we need to function well, Walker said.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking sedation is real sleep,” he said. “It’s not.”
Instead, look to non-pharmaceutical options to help you forge good sleep habits, Winer said.
“For younger people who have very busy lives and stressful lives, it’s very important to… practice sleep hygiene,” he said.
As a first step, he suggested avoiding stressful situations right before bed and going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day. If you’re on your phone or computer a lot at night and are having trouble sleeping, try limiting your screen time before bed.
But, of course, everyone’s different, Winer said. Find routines that work for you.
“It’s just like with coffee, you know,” he said. “There are probably some people who can be on their computer, turn it off, and fall asleep (right away), just like there are people who can drink coffee at 8 p.m. But if you’re having a problem, it’s something you can try changing.”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.