Poor Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer, never found the fountain of youth, but his quest turned out to be a durable legend. Who wouldn’t want an easy way to stay young?
Well, researchers at the University of California Berkeley say their research demonstrates a clear way to make that happen. And it’s easy to do.
Their answer: Get a good night’s sleep every night. Without sleeping pills. They call it “the very center” of an effective anti-aging program.
Sleep is so important that a popular health writer, Bill Sardi, recently named “not getting enough sleep” as one of the 10 biggest health care mistakes. I completely agree, but I prefer to give it a positive spin: Getting enough sleep is one of the most powerful things you can do to add years to your life.
Now, new research underlines it’s even important than I thought. . .
I first learned about the importance of sleep in the course of researching cancer remedies many years ago. Over the long term, poor quality (or no) sleep is a risk factor for cancer.
About seven years ago, when my research staff and I turned our attention to Alzheimer’s disease, we quickly learned that failing to get enough quality sleep is perhaps THE number one cause of dementia. It’s certainly among the top five.
I don’t know why anyone would even need further confirmation, but today I’ve got some…
The review study by the Berkeley scientists – where they analyzed a long list of studies on sleep — puts sleep at the very center of an anti-aging program that keeps you healthy as long as possible.
“Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep,” says researcher Matthew Walker. “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.”
Less Sleep Means More Disease
Dr. Walker points out that many of the visible signs of aging — like graying (or disappearing) hair or wrinkles — are cosmetic markers of getting old. (They may not even be that important – see our last issue.) But sleep deterioration is linked to the serious health problems inside our bodies that accompany aging – stroke, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.1
The Berkeley scientists also confirm – no surprise to me — that many studies now show that sleeping poorly contributes to memory and other cognitive problems as we age. On top of that, the evidence shows that our sleep can start to suffer when we are only in our 30s. And for most of us, sleep quality only goes downhill from there.
How about using pharmaceutical sleeping pills? Bad idea. They don’t help the situation – even though Americans spend billions of dollars on them.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking sedation is real sleep. It’s not,” warns Dr. Walker. He explains that medicated sleep doesn’t let the brain travel through its natural nightly cycles. Here’s what he means…
In general, when we’re young, the brain experiences substantial periods of what is called deep non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, so-called slow wave sleep. During this type of slumber, the brain generates slow brain waves accompanied by more rapid brain wave bursts known as sleep spindles. At this time, the brain moves memories of the day’s events from temporary storage in the hippocampus to the pre-frontal cortex – where long range memory is kept.
But when you don’t get enough restful sleep as you get older, this memory transfer process is hindered, and your ability to remember things suffers.
How to Improve Your Sleep
If you want to hold on to more of your youthful memory and physical abilities, there are a few things you can do to boost your sleep.
One is to avoid alcohol. One of the worst kinds of drinking is to have one or more nightcaps right before bed. Yet millions of people do exactly that. It may be the world’s most widely used sleep aid.
A study in Australia shows that an alcoholic drink can work as a temporary sedative and perhaps help you to fall asleep faster, but you pay a price later on during the night. As your body processes the alcohol, it actually disrupts sleep.2
And if you have several drinks, the alcohol, according to research conducted at the University of Missouri-Columbia, can have epigenetic effects – impairing the function of a gene that regulates your sleep.3
“What we have shown in this research is that a particular gene – which is very important for sleep homeostasis – is altered by just one session of binge drinking (which consists of four drinks or more),” warns researcher Mahesh Thakkar. “We were not expecting this. We thought it would be affected after multiple sessions of binge drinking, not one. That tells you that as soon as you consume four drinks, it can alter your genes.”
Other ways to improve sleep:
- Get some exercise during the day. A study at UCLA shows that when older people engage in daily exercise, no matter if it is intense or leisurely, they sleep better.4
- Turn off your Wi Fi early in the evening. German researchers have found that access to the internet later at night means less sleep. Surfing the net is so tempting that it inevitably adds up to a later bedtime.5 I’ll also mention that the blue light wavelengths emitted by screens are extremely disruptive to the brain when viewed before bed.
- Get some sunlight during the day. Research shows that getting out in the sun in the morning or afternoon can improve your sleep – especially as you get older.6
Other useful tips: Make sure your sleep is not being interrupted by physical conditions like frequent trips to the bathroom, sleep apnea, sinus blockages, or chronic pain. These conditions are usually treatable, so get them fixed.
Sleep in total darkness (this includes covering up those infernal little lights that are now on EVERY type of electric device). Do NOT turn on lights at night. If you absolutely need some light (for instance, for a bathroom trip), learn to get by with a night light or similar solution, and turn it off after you’ve done your business. Use curtains or blinds to make sure light doesn’t leak into your bedroom from outside.
You can’t be healthy if you don’t get a good night’s sleep. And studies even show that skimping on sleep – getting six hours or less – can also make you dehydrated.7 That’s because it affects the hormone that regulates the body’s water status. And that’s another good reason to get to bed earlier.