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Ageing Affects The Sleep Cycle But How? Loss of Brain Cells, Says New Study

The older you get, the more difficult does finding sleep become – a generality attested by experts. Just like babies tend to have sleeping issues, the elderly also face trouble sleeping (if not for the same reason). One of life’s mysteries has been whether ageing directly affects the sleeping cycle. A new study has attempted to explain this phenomenon by putting forward the argument that sleep patterns are disrupted as a consequence of loss of brain cells associated with the regulation of the sleep cycle.

old age and sleep

From baby to adult to baby-like adult

Life is punctuated by transitions – everything is temporary here. The cycle of life itself is all about changing, remoulding and, returning to starting point. We start off as babies, unable to do anything on our own. Ultimately, many of us age so much that they return to being an older version of what they were during infancy: senility. While not everyone reaches that stage, ageing triggers somewhat of a reversal process: a downward progression where we are brought back to being weak. One of these aspects entails the sleeping cycle. With age, sleeping becomes more and more of a hassle.

Just like sleeping is an issue for babies, the same goes for old people. Experts have quantified the phenomenon as follows: a person above 70 years of age sleeps one hour less than someone in his 20s.

What is the mechanism behind the sleep problems of old people?

Scientists have not yet established the reasons, but a new study suggests that the degeneration of brain cells could be triggering the sleep difficulties.

The Experiment: Loss of Ventrolateral Preoptic Neurones

The researchers of the new study interpreted the results of their experiment to mean that the complications associated with sleep and old age could be caused by the loss of brain cells. The study involved 1000 elderly people who were 65 years old when they were registered as participants for the research back in 1997 – since then, they have been followed by the researchers until their death.

The participants were to wear a movement-tracking device on their wrists for 7 to 10 days every 2 years. One of the observations made was that older subjects as well as those affected by Alzheimer’s disease would undergo a loss of neurones at a more rapid rate; more particularly, the ventrolateral preoptic neurones were the ones declining in function. These neurones are known to regulate the patterns of sleep. The scientists therefore concluded that sleeping problems crop up as a consequence of the loss of the neurones responsible for normalising sleep – as one loses more of these nerve cells, one finds it more and more difficult to sleep.


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