The Importance of Catching Some Zs

By Rebecca Moragne, TuftScope Research-Highlights Editor

No matter an individual’s age, sleep is essential to heath. However, as humans age, the importance increases due to the connection between sleep and cognitive diseases. University of California-Berkeley released a study earlier this month showing that an elder’s lack of sleep increases their risk of memory loss and associated mental and physical disorders. Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience and the article’s senior author stated, “Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep” (University of California-Berkeley, 2017). The decrease in sleep in the elderly is not only in quantity, but also in quality.

As humans age, the brain regions that control deep sleep begin to deteriorate. Deep sleep produces slow waves and “sleep spindles” that convert short-term memories in the hippocampus to long-term information in the prefrontal cortex. Sleep deterioration in the elderly is also due to a decrease in the regulation of neurochemicals. Neurochemicals, such as galanin and orexin, stabilize sleep and promote the ability to transition from sleep to wakefulness. According to the study, sleep deterioration due to these neurological changes “has been linked to such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and stroke” (University of California-Berkeley, 2017). In order to prevent these diseases, pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions are being researched. While many seek sleeping pills as a solution, Walker believes that these are a poor option because they lead to sedation, not sleep, which are very different from each other. “Sleeping pills sedate the brain, rather than help it sleep naturally. We must find better treatments for restoring healthy sleep in older adults, and that is now one of our dedicated research missions” (University of California-Berkeley, 2017). Instead of pills, electrical stimulation is a potential solution for a deficiency in deep sleep by amplifying brain waves during sleep to slow brain rhythms. Sleep is essential for daily recuperation and restoration and due to the decreasing strength of an aging brain’s ability to process information, this rest is even more important. Hopefully, more research will explain how to ensure quality of sleep in the elderly while elders learn the importance of establishing quantity.


University of California - Berkeley. (2017, April 5). Deep sleep may act as fountain of youth in old age: Restorative, sedative-free slumber can ward off mental and physical ailments, suggests research. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 8, 2017 from