For most of us, it is the ultimate goal: to live longer and live well and our sleep habits may help, or hurt our longevity.
As we age, we strive to have abundant physical, emotional, and cognitive health. What if your sleep habits, harmless as they may seem, were potentially keeping you from living a longer and healthier life?
When we consider all sleep does to strengthen physiological and psychological health, it’s not hard to see how sleep could play a deeply influential role in longevity.
Exactly how does sleep influence our health and ultimately our lifespan? Not surprisingly, on all levels.
Related: Why We Sleep (And Why It’s So Important to Sleep Well)
Sleep Supports Immune Function and Cellular Repair
Plentiful, high-quality sleep supports the work of the body’s immune system. Each and every night of high-quality sleep fuels the restoration and repair of cells, tissues and organs.
Sleep quality also affects the function of skin cells, and sleeping poorly may make the skin (our largest and most visible organ) more vulnerable to environmental damage and more prone to the visible signs of aging.
During sleep, the body produces hormones that contribute to youthful appearance, energy, and strength. In fact, research has shown that just a single night of sleep deprivation can speed up cellular aging.
Sleep Protects Your Brain, Both the Neurological and Cognitive Processes
As we age, we often start to notice a change in how easily we learn new things, or how well we remember or retain information. Sleep is an important tool we can use to help us continue to stay stay sharp mentally, regardless of our age.
Sleep facilitates memory and learning. Disrupted sleep can interfere with our brain’s ability to make and store memories, as well as with other cognitive functions such as problem solving and attention to detail.
Sleep also protects the structural health of the brain. During our nightly rest, the brain works to clear out toxins which can build up throughout the day. This includes proteins that can damage brain tissue and impair healthy cognition.
Poor sleep, as well as, the presence of untreated sleep disorders, has been shown to also increase risks for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Sleep Helps Maintain Cardiovascular and Metabolic Health
Cardiovascular disease and diabetes are two predominant health issues for both men and women in the United States. If you aren’t personally affected, someone you know is. One of the easiest ways to help protect against these two diseases is to get good consistent quality sleep. These conditions are worsened if you have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea.
Sleep is important for heart health and a healthy metabolism because when we don’t get enough rest, we’re more at risk for high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems. Chronic sleep issues are also linked to high blood sugar, poor insulin function, and greater risks for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
Over time, a pattern of poor sleep impairs the body’s natural disease-preventing defenses. It undermines the healthy functioning of cells and the activity of our genes. It makes us more prone to chronic diseases associated with aging, and advances biological age.
Sleep Becomes More Complicated With Age
As anyone who’s struggled to nod off at night or risen repeatedly to use the bathroom knows, aging is often accompanied by greater problems with sleep.
During middle age and beyond, people often experience new challenges in their sleep, as sleep becomes lighter and more restless.
Snoring also becomes more common as we age, bringing about fragmented, less refreshing sleep as it’s often linked to the likelihood of sleep apnea.
Changes to sleep patterns can arise from several different sources, including underlying biological changes related to sleep regulation, other health problems, and medications that create negative side effects for sleep.
Research links several sleep problems with higher mortality risks in older adults. Sleeping too little and sleeping too much are both associated with increased risks of death in older adults. Among sleep disorders, sleep apnea in particular is strongly linked to elevated mortality risks, when left untreated.
The relationship between sleep and longevity is a complicated one. Yet we know sleep is essential to survival, and a key to living well over a long lifespan. Here are some important things to know about the ways our sleep may affect longevity.
Sleep Apnea Speeds the Aging Process
Snoring and sleep apnea are two forms of “sleep disordered breathing,” and they are some of the most under-diagnosed, frequently occurring sleep problems, with some of the most serious consequences for long-term physical, cognitive, and emotional health.
We know that obstructive sleep apnea raises risks for many serious and chronic conditions that become more common with age.
Sleep apnea elevates blood pressure and increases the risks for other forms of cardiovascular disease. Sleep apnea is strongly linked to obesity and to the development of type 2 diabetes. This sleep-breathing disorder has strong connections to depression and contributes to cognitive impairment, including increased risks for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
In brand-new research, scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University have demonstrated that sleep apnea may be directly linked to faster aging.
To identify the link between sleep apnea and accelerated aging, scientists measured a complex biological process that causes changes to how genes operate. Aging has effects on how our genes function. Age-related changes to gene activity in turn create greater vulnerability and risks for illness and disease, which can shorten lifespan. Measuring one of these age-related changes provides a kind of “snapshot” of age at a genetic level.
Scientists analyzed this marker for aging against the presence of compromised breathing during sleep, the apneas and hypopneas that are the hallmark symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.
Scientists also considered how often people woke throughout the night, a condition known as sleep arousal. Arousal is an important factor in sleep apnea.
Untreated sleep apnea can cause people to wake hundreds of times during the course of a single night. Sleep arousals result in sleep that has fewer restorative, health-protective benefits.
This study revealed several important connections between sleep apnea and aging:
- First, the research established a link between the presence of sleep-disordered breathing and an “older” biological age.
- Second, the study showed that the more severe sleep apnea becomes, the faster aging accelerates.
- Scientists also discovered that the connections between sleep apnea and aging were stronger for women than for men. This doesn’t mean men won’t experience accelerated aging associated with their sleep apnea. It does suggest that women may have additional vulnerability to the effects of sleep apnea on their biological age.
What you can do: If you snore, or experience any of the symptoms of sleep apnea, reach out to us and have your sleep evaluated. Treating sleep apnea and other forms of sleep-disordered breathing can help to lower your risks of chronic disease and the effects of cellular and genetic aging.
Sleep Poorly and Your Immune System Suffers
Sleep and immunity are deeply connected. Sleeping well helps the immune system function at its best, while disrupted sleep can interfere with healthy immune activity. In turn, a well-functioning immune system supports strong sleep, while an overtaxed, overworked immune system can create complications for sleep.
Sleep and the immune system also share a common, underlying regulator: the body’s circadian rhythms. These rhythms operate on a 24-hour cycle, guiding us through a complete day of rest and activity.
Circadian Rhythms Regulate Your Sleep and Your Immune System
In addition to regulating sleep, circadian rhythms establish daily patterns for eating and digestion, and for activity in the brain (which influences daily cognitive performance).
They also affect the production of hormones and a range of biological activity that enables us to function, and affects how we think and feel. Circadian rhythms also regulate the activity of our immune system.
Our circadian rhythms are controlled by a master circadian clock, located in the brain. This master clock communicates with other clocks and circadian genes throughout the body, to synchronize all circadian activity.
This clock is often described as a pacemaker, working nonstop to maintain the precise timing of the vast and complex activity of the body.
Age Disrupts Circadian Rhythms Which Can Increase Inflammation
With age, circadian rhythms can become less robust, and more prone to disruption. As we grow older, the master timekeeping clock may become less reliable, it’s regulating signals less strong.
Imagine playing music while using a metronome to keep tempo. What happens when the sound of the metronome grows quieter, or misses the occasional tick-tock? The music runs off course.
When circadian rhythms are thrown off their timing, healthy immune function can go off course, leading to compromised immune protection, increased inflammation and oxidative stress, which wear at cells, tissues, and organs and contribute to disease and aging.
Keep Circadian Rhythms on Track with Good Sleep Habits
Sleep isn’t only regulated by circadian rhythms. Sleep habits also affect how circadian clocks operate. Disruptions to sleep can throw circadian rhythms out of sync. Protecting the quality and quantity of nightly rest helps circadian rhythms stay on track.
Sleep is also an important time for the work of the immune system. During sleep, the body’s immune system ramps up its work, undertaking complex processes to repair cells, fight against bacteria, viruses and disease-producing activity. Not sleeping enough, and sleeping poorly, can inhibit the immune system’s ability to perform this work.
What you can do: One of the best ways to maintain healthy circadian rhythms, sleep and immune function as we age is to manage daily stress. Psychological stress exacerbates inflammation, over-taxes the immune system, and interferes with sleep and circadian cycles.
Exercise, meditation, thoughtful, moderate consumption of alcohol and other stimulants (including caffeine), are some of the most common—and effective—ways to limit chronic stress and promote sound sleep.
People Who Live Into Their 90s Have a Common Habit; Strong Sleep Routines
Strong sleep patterns are one hallmark of people who achieve exceptional longevity, living into their 90s and beyond with good health and strong quality of life.
Sleep can be profoundly affected by aging, and getting enough high-quality rest can become harder as we grow older.
- With age, nightly cycles of sleep may change, with more time spent in lighter sleep stages and less time in deep sleep, which is the most restorative for the body.
- More time in light sleep often means more awakenings throughout the night, and less refreshing sleep overall.
- Some people find that as they age, it takes longer to fall asleep, cutting into overall sleep amounts.
- And sleep disorders, including insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea, become more common with age. By age 65, it’s estimated that nearly half of adults in the US suffer from a sleep disorder. That number may be even higher. And most of those sleep disorders go undiagnosed, leaving poor sleep to undermine health and longevity.
Common Sleep Patterns for Longevity
Research shows that people who reach very old age—85 and beyond—share certain characteristics about their sleep patterns:
- They maintain very regular sleep schedules, going to bed and waking at the same time, every day.
- They retain more time in deep, slow-wave sleep.
As we age, it’s important to think about the regularity of sleep, and to use consistent sleep routines to ensure that we receive the amount of sleep we need, night after night.
What you can do: Create a sleep schedule that delivers you the amount of sleep you need to feel and function at your best, and commit to sleeping on that schedule, including weekdays and weekends. As tempting as it is to sleep in on the weekends, you should still get up at the same time you do during the week. Even a couple of late nights and late wake ups on the weekend can reorder your biological clock and leave you feeling tired and not rested when you get back to your routine.
Regularity in sleep schedules help to ensure reinforce the strength of circadian clocks, benefitting sleep as well as cardiovascular and metabolic health.
Whatever your age, it’s the right time to invest attention in creating and maintaining a routine of plentiful, high-quality, restorative sleep. Healthy sleep habits are a part of that. So, too, is seeking diagnosis and effective treatment for any sleep issues that aren’t resolved by good sleep hygiene. Addressing sleep problems today may help you pave the way for welcome longevity down the road.
To help you create healthy nighttime sleep habits to help your longevity discover How to Use Your Sleep Cycles For Your Best Sleep. You’ll learn how to create a sleep environment that will help you get past the first stage of sleep, and how to calculate your sleep cycles so you can determine the perfect bedtime to wake up feeling refreshed in the morning.
If you’re struggling to get enough sleep because you find it difficult to either fall asleep or stay asleep, then these Top 5 Tips to Help You Fall Asleep and Stay Asleep will help you get the rest you need.
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