The Fountain of Youth: Sleep

By Jacqueline Knox – August 1, 2021

Getting a good night’s sleep is imperative to your overall health and body function, especially as you get older. Everyone can feel the initial effects of a poor night’s sleep — fatigue, bad mood, lack of focus, etc. — but not many know the long-term effects on one’s longevity until it is too late to correct a bad sleeping pattern. 

Kathy Richards (Ph.D., RN, FAAN, FAASM), a clinical professor and senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, specializes in the area of adult health. Her research focuses specifically on improving sleep. 

“A lot of studies that we’ve been doing as sleep scientists show that too-long sleep or too-short sleep over lifespan is likely to affect longevity,” Richards explains. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lack of sleep can be directly linked to certain health issues like high blood pressure, type two diabetes, obesity, heart attack, asthma and depression. Also, a 2014 study found that sleeping six hours or less per night can even increase one’s chances of having a car crash by 33%. 

On the flip side, an abundance of sleep can also cause issues. A 2019 study focused on the association of sleep duration, napping and strokes found that sleeping nine hours or more a night increased the incidence of stroke by 13% compared to those who sleep seven to eight hours a night. This is because excess sleep is linked to conditions like obesity and high cholesterol, which are both risk factors for stroke. 

Most interestingly, a 2007 study following twins found that there was an increased risk of death for both over- and under-sleeping at night. The risk was 24% if people slept less than seven hours and 17% for more than eight hours a night. Another study focused on twins found that sleep deprivation suppresses one’s immune system, which would increase mortality risk. 

Richards, who has been studying sleep for over 25 years, also believes that the relationship between sleep and the quality of your life should be examined. 

“I don’t think that any of us really want a long life if we have no quality of life,” Richards explains. “Many studies have shown that insufficient sleep, disrupted sleep, a lot of awakenings during sleep [or] just poor quality of sleep is associated with a poor quality of life.”

Richards believes that the magic number of hours a night for adults and older adults is seven hours. However, she notes that not everyone is able to achieve a full seven hours of sleep a night, and it’s okay to make up some lost sleep on the weekends. 

“If you’re deprived of sleep because of work, children or other obligations that you can’t manage any better,” Richards says, “if you can do some catch-up sleep, that’s very healthy. We’d recommend that for people who have life circumstances that prevent getting [a] good night’s sleep every night.”

The aspect that is different with older adults is that their sleep has been found to be more disruptive at night, so in order to get a proper seven hours in, they might have to be in bed longer. This is because the suprachiasmatic nucleus, a bilateral structure in the hypothalamus that regulates more circadian rhythms in the body, doesn’t work as well as we get older, according to Richards. This affects sleep and the timing of sleep. 

“Somewhere in adulthood, changes in the brain start to occur in the sleep-wake mechanisms, having a continuous sound sleep and falling asleep so quickly,” Richards explains. “It’s just not as easy as it used to be.”

Additionally, it is recommended that adults don’t nap as much as they age because daytime napping is associated with fragmented and poor quality sleep. 

Counting sheep, reading before bed, drinking a cup of tea — we have all heard the little tips and tricks passed down that are supposed to make you go to sleep faster and stay asleep longer. Richards shares some professional sleep hygiene advice on how to improve your sleep and ensure you get your seven golden hours. 

1. Make sure you’re on a sleep schedule. 

In order to get the best sleep, Richards recommends going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday, even on the weekends. Your suprachiasmatic nucleus is synchronized by your sleep schedule, so ensuring that you have one is really important for sleep success. 

2. Get some sunshine and exercise every day. 

Richards recommends at least an hour of sunlight a day, as well as exercise, in order to keep your circadian rhythms in sync, because both of those help set your internal sleep/wake clock. 

3. Have a good sleeping environment. 

Make sure that the temperature of your sleep environment is not too hot or cold. The ideal temperature for sleep is 65℉. Additionally, Richards recommends not sleeping with a pet if you have one, because that can disrupt your sleep environment. 

4. Do a relaxing activity before bed. 

Read a book, take a bath or shower, drink a cup of herbal tea. These activities help you power down your body for the night and get ready to go to sleep. 

5. Power down your devices. 

Scrolling through social media and staring at a bright screen will only make it harder to fall asleep. In fact, Richards suggests staying away from screens for a bit before you go to sleep. “We don’t recommend doing any computer work within a couple hours of bedtime,” Richards says. 

6. Watch your alcohol intake before bed. 

Alcohol is a significant disrupter of sleep. “[For] most people, after consuming a fair amount of alcohol, you will wake up,” Richards explains. “You fall asleep quickly, but you will wake up an hour and a half, two hours later. So, watch those margaritas.”


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