My Lovely Wife will tell you that I sleep like a log, often to her dismay, since she’s the one who’s always hauling herself out of bed in the middle of the night to investigate some cat-created mayhem. I don’t remember a thing about these incidents when I rise, refreshed and happy, each morning, but a new study suggests that my memory actually benefits from all those uninterrupted Zs.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found a link between “slow-wave” sleep and memory among oldsters like myself. Here’s how it works: The slow brain waves created by deep restorative sleep help to transport memories of recent events from the hippocampus to the pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s long-term “hard drive.” As we age, those periods of deep REM sleep become fewer and farther between, so short-term memories tend to get stuck in the hippocampus, then obscured by newer memories and thus forgotten.
“When we are young, we have deep sleep that helps the brain store and retain new facts and information,” Matthew Walker, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and senior author of the study, said in a statement released by the university. “But as we get older, the quality of our sleep deteriorates and prevents those memories from being saved by the brain at night.”
The solution? Transcranial direct current stimulation. That’s right: Just hook up some electrodes to your head prior to crawling into bed, and with a flip of the switch a low-voltage electrical current will run through your pre-frontal cortex and you’ll be happily snoozing away in no time. And remember the whole thing when you get up in the morning. This has actually be tested on folks by neuroscientists in Germany.
The other option, I suppose, would be to be a bit more mindful about what you’re doing prior to bedtime. Most experts suggest that you avoid caffeine, alcohol and large meals and be sure to get a little exercise each day. MLW, by the way, gets to sleep in most mornings; she’s generally REM-ing along quite nicely by the time the cats are waking me up to get their breakfast. And, believe me, she remembers everything.
I’ve always thought that a good night’s sleep was the cure for almost anything that might ail you. That’s always been the case for me. In fact, if I don’t get eight hours a night, I pretty quickly fall apart.
That hasn’t been much of a problem, thankfully, even as I roll into my 60s. And that’s been a pleasant surprise, actually, because conventional wisdom has it that the older you get, the harder it is to get a good night’s sleep. The image of the groggy geezer falling asleep while watching the evening news because he was tossing and turning all night is pretty pervasive in our culture. But, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, that’s not the case. The vast majority of seniors regularly enjoy almost seven hours of sleep a night.
“Our findings suggest that in matters regarding sleep and sleepiness, as in many other aspects of life, most seniors today are doing better than is generally thought,” said lead author Timothy Monk, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “The stereotype of most seniors going to bed at 8 p.m., sleeping very lightly and being unduly sleepy during the day may be quite inaccurate.”
The key, says Monk and his colleagues, is to retain your vitality as you grow older. Most sleep-related problems are connected to health issues, not some hardwired yearning for an 8 p.m. bedtime as soon as you hit retirement.
And that makes sense to me. The best night’s sleep for me, at least, always follows a day’s worth of physical activity. So, stay active and stay healthy and you ought to be able to snooze with the best of them — no matter how old you are.
The last couple of nights I’ve found myself nodding off while reading on the couch — well before 10 p.m. Now that might have something to do with the book I’ve been slogging through (Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air) or it could mean that I’m not getting enough exercise, but it’s got me thinking that maybe the years are finally catching up to me.
Then I read an article today that explained how dolphins can stay alert and vigilant for up to 15 days at a time without sleep (more specifically, male dolphins up to 5 days; females up to 15 — typical), and I began to wonder whether I shouldn’t take up swimming. I’m a poor swimmer, but I have never fallen asleep while flailing away amid the waves.
But it’s not about the water, according to researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation. Dolphins can keep going 24/15 because only half of their brain sleeps at a time.
While this may seem like a novel concept, unique to this remarkable species, I’d argue that most of us wander around most of the time with only half of our brain in gear. And if you’ve been paying any attention to political campaigns this year, you could make a pretty persuasive argument that even that is a charitable estimate. Besides, when it comes to maintaining your vitality over the long haul, your body has to rest every bit as much as your brain.
Which reminds me: It’s getting late. I should be headed to bed.
Sleep is a wonderful thing. Indeed, as I’ve grown older and levels of a certain hormone have subsided, it is from time to time preferable even to that other word that begins with the letter “s” and describes an activity that often occurs in the bedroom.
I know what you’re thinking: How can you prefer sleep to sit-ups?
It’s actually more complicated than you may think. This winter I’ve been generally avoiding the after-work gym routine that I’d been practicing pretty religiously for the past four years. I won’t bore you with all the excuses. Let’s just say it lost its allure. Kind of like sit-ups. To compensate, I began incorporating a little kettlebell workout into my morning routine. Not too intense, just a nice way to get the blood pumping before breakfast. Trouble is, creating that window of opportunity before work requires that I arise at a certain hour.
I don’t know if this happens to you, but there are mornings when I climb out of bed knowing that I have no business being vertical. And, while it doesn’t usually take too long to shake out the cobwebs and get on with my routine, I almost always pay a price later in the day. So, lately, I’ve been paying more attention to my level of fatigue when I first open my eyes in the morning, and opting to snooze right through my workout time if my body’s telling me it’s not fully rested.
As a result, I’ve lately found myself skipping my morning workout for lack of time, but still feeling plenty of energy because I’m not scrimping on my sleep. It’s a reasonable trade-off, it seems to me, given that sleep is so important to our overall health. As Kermit Pattison notes in this EL piece, “sleep is vital for sustaining peak mental performance, stabilizing mood, bolstering immunity, coping with stress, repairing our tissues, rebalancing our biochemistry and maintaining healthy metabolism. Hundreds of biological processes occur while we snooze — all of which allow us to be more productive, alert and healthy during our waking hours.”
I’m particularly intrigued by how a good night’s sleep boosts my aging immune system. Pattison reports that sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of colon and breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes. That’s because, when you’re conked out, levels of cancer-killers like interleukin-1 and tumor necrosis factor rise by tenfold over your waking levels.
Even a mild case of sleep deprivation can increase inflammation in your body, and that can cause real problems. Here’s how Alexandros N. Vgontzas, MD, director of the Sleep Research and Treatment Center at Penn State University in Hershey, puts it:
“You develop a condition of low-grade inflammation, and we know that low-grade inflammation is a pathway to cardiovascular problems and decreased longevity. Several studies show that when these markers are high, people are at higher risk for hypertension, heart attacks, strokes and decreased longevity.”
That rings true for me, because it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll catch a cold if I’m tossing and turning for a few nights in a row. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often these days. Even without my morning workout, I’m still walking a couple of miles a day and squeezing in an occasional evening workout with Mr. Parkour and My Lovely Wife, and we all know that nothing sparks a good night’s sleep more than a generous amount of exercise during the day. Which, at least in theory, would then allow me to awaken refreshed and ready for my morning workout.
All of which reminds me that it’s time for bed.