By Michael Howard, PhD
Regular and restful sleep helps keep immune systems strong. Such sleep also helps keep blood pressure and blood sugar at low levels.
This kind of sleep can help resist weight gain and obesity, assist in emotional stability and forming new memories, and reduce pain perception.
Many older people in their 70s and 80s get only about six hours of sleep per night. Centenarians typically have regular sleep patterns and get plenty of restful, restorative sleep—usually seven to eight hours.
One of the major characteristics of 100-year-olds in an area of Costa Rica is sleeping about eight hours per day on a regular basis. While sleep times can vary from person to person, getting regular rest is the key. Centenarians have established sleep routines, tending to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. In general, they go to sleep when the sun goes down and wake up when it comes up. In the Japanese Centenarian Study, spontaneously waking up at regular times in the morning was a major characteristic of those who were living independently.
Taking a nap during the day may be a healthy sleeping pattern for older people. While sleeping continuously throughout the night is often touted as the most recommended way to sleep, midday napping appears to be a common characteristic of the healthiest older people. In the MEDIS study of long-lived people in the Mediterranean islands, all of the people in the study older than 90 years were found to engage in naps around noontime.
Unfortunately, as many as 40 percent of the elderly have some type of sleep disorder that can result in physical and cognitive problems. “Short-sleepers” getting less than six hours of sleep a night have been found to have poor insulin control of blood sugar, more diabetes and obesity, stronger appetites, more heart attacks, and shorter life spans. These risks are even more pronounced for those getting five or fewer hours of sleep per night. Obesity and sleep deprivation are strongly connected. Studies show that, compared with those getting about eight hours of sleep per night, those who sleep only five hours have a 50 percent higher chance of becoming obese. Those who sleep only four hours have a 73 percent higher chance of obesity. It also appears that getting too much sleep—hypersomnia—of nine or more hours nightly may be even worse for health and longevity than sleep deprivation.
Increasing age increases the chance of developing several sleep disorders. Sleep disorders are associated with many health problems and are major risk factors for heart disease, stroke, depression, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Common age-related sleep disorders include insomnia, obstructive sleep disorder, restless legs, periodic limb movement disorder, and REM (rapid eye movement) behavior disorder. Insomnia is the biggest culprit, because it is the most common sleep disorder. Other less-common sleep disorders may be even more dangerous. Obstructive sleep apnea, for example, dramatically raises the risk of heart attack and stroke. According to a study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care, even mild obstructive sleep apnea raises cardiovascular disease risk because of increased arterial stiffness. It seems clear that getting a good night’s sleep is crucial to health and longevity.
If there are problems sleeping, there are techniques you can try at home to help, called “sleep hygiene.” Techniques of improving sleep with easily-implemented sleep hygiene strategies can be found on the internet, and many people can help themselves to a better night’s sleep by using them. Centenarians practice many of these techniques. If sleep hygiene techniques do not work and sleep problems continue, the best recommendation is to see a sleep disorders specialist or go to a sleep disorders clinic for thorough evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment. Bottom line: to live long, sleep well.