Nearly half of the senior set isn’t getting enough sleep, but efforts to address the problem seem to be more entertaining than effective.
British filmmakers in September will premiere what they’re touting as “the dullest film ever made,” an eight-hour epic starring . . . a flock of sheep. There’s no dialogue, no plot, and no purpose other than to lull viewers to sleep. “It’s better than any sleeping pill,” says executive director Alex Tew. “The ultimate insomnia cure.”
Baa Baa Land is noteworthy, I suppose, for its unambiguously boring portrayal of ruminant life, but it’s hardly unique among recent efforts to capture bits and pieces of an ever-growing market: sleep-deprived Americans. Researchers and entrepreneurs are trotting out everything from nap pods and sound-wave headbands to goggles and LED sleep bulbs, all designed to help us snooze more soundly.
My Lovely Wife will testify that I am not a candidate for any of these remedies, as I’ve been known to snore through disturbances that register on the Richter Scale. But I’m an outlier among those tossing and turning here in Geezerville. One 1995 study found that more than four in 10 people over 65 have trouble snoozing once they hit the sack. And this can lead to the sorts of afflictions — a weakened immune system, impaired cognitive function, and depression — that tend to take the luster from our golden years.
“Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep,” says Matthew Walker, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley.” We’ve done a good job of extending life span, but a poor job of extending our health span. We now see sleep, and improving sleep, as a new pathway for helping remedy that.”
In a review of sleep studies published in the journal Neuron, Walker and his colleagues describe the neurological forces that sabotage our slumber as we grow older. Our aging noggins gradually lose their ability to produce the proper combination of slow and fast brain waves that create deep sleep. We also have trouble regulating the neurochemicals (primarily galanin and orexin) responsible for stabilizing our sleep cycles, which may explain why MLW often awakens in the night and finds it difficult to get back to sleep.
Big Pharma has no answer to this conundrum, Walker notes. “Sleeping pills sedate the brain, rather than help it sleep naturally. We must find better treatments for restoring healthy sleep in older adults, and that is now one of our dedicated research missions.”
Walker and his crew have plenty of company as they search for this particular fountain of youth. As Penelope Green reports in the New York Times, researchers across the country seem to be competing to see who can come up with the most exotic solution. Walker is investigating direct-current stimulation as a cure for sleeplessness. Northwestern University scientists have shown that sounds synchronized to the rhythm of brain waves may hold some promise. At M.I.T., they’re focusing on everything from bedtime stories and lavender oil to hammocks and cocoons.
Meanwhile, a French computer scientist has invented a headband that emits sleep-inducing sound waves, and an Australian entrepreneur is working on a finger attachment that disrupts your pre-sleep drowsiness to help you sleep more soundly. Skeptical? This is the same guy who has sold 30,000 pairs of goggles that purportedly reset your sleep cycle by shining tiny green-blue lights in your eyes.
On the boredom-stimulation front, the makers of Baa Baa Land should be encouraged by the response to the slumber-inducing efforts of Jeff Bridges and Drew Ackerman. Bridges, best known for his role in the cult classic The Big Lebowski, recorded a spoken-word album in 2015 that Green describes as “quasi-bedtime stories, musings about death, and also a humming song.” The album reached No. 2 on Billboard’s New Age chart. Ackerman produces a podcast of “boring bedtime stories” designed to cure insomnia that attracts 1.3 million listeners a month.
I’m all for American ingenuity, but on those rare occasions when I find myself wide awake around bedtime, nothing sends me to dreamland quite so effectively as a few dense paragraphs from a 19th-century Russian novel. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev — any one of them will do the trick. And the story doesn’t even have to involve any sheep.