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by Holly St. Lifer
Updated September 28, 2022
No matter your age, not getting enough sleep throws off your circadian rhythm, a part of the master clock that regulates all the systems in your body and brain. But experts say it can take longer for an older brain to get back on track.
"The master clock is located in the hypothalamus and is like a conductor in an orchestra that leads the circadian clocks in tissues throughout the body," says Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York. Throw off this rhythm and internal havoc ensues; increased appetite and blood pressure, weight gain, diabetes susceptibility and cardiovascular issues are just some of the physical consequences.
But the brain pays a particular price, according to McEwen's March 2015 review paper on the effects of sleep deprivation. When circadian disruption occurred in mice whose sleep-wake cycle was altered to mimic shift work for one month, "not only did they become fat, brain circuits responsible for cognition lost connections and the mice were slower in solving problems," says McEwen. Other studies have shown that sleep deprivation also impairs self-regulation, decision-making ability, working memory and mood. Why? "All brain circuits rely on connections between nerve cells to function; when circadian rhythms are thrown off, these connections are lost temporarily. In older people these connections can take longer to reset."
McEwen says events like jet lag or getting up too early over a three- or four-day period can affect this body clock. "Six hours a night is marginal, seven to eight hours is optimal."
When you travel across time zones, which is a common cause of circadian disruption, your quickest route to getting resynchronized is exposure to bright light. "When you wake up, go outside for about an hour," says Matthew R. Ebben, a sleep specialist at Weill Cornell Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. In fact, consider turning one-hour wake-up walks with a friend into a healthy habit. Ebben says exercise and social activity can also help you get back to a normal sleep pattern.
Other strategies for snoozing better are going to bed and waking up at the same times each day, and not lying around in the sack. Older adults are also more prone to obstructive sleep apnea; those affected stop breathing for too long during sleep and then wake up. Ebben says the effective treatment for that is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which a sleep specialist can prescribe. The machine is connected to a mask you wear when sleeping that helps prevent inconsistent breathing.
“Sleep Deprivation and Circadian Disruption: Stress, Allostasis, and Allostatic Load,” Sleep Medicine Clinics, March 2015. In this review, researchers show that both sleep deprivation and misalignment between internal and external time can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Read a summary of the review. (A fee is required to access the full review.)