Blame the Brain: Elderly Insomnia

By Alyse Borkan  |  Sep 23, 2014
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An old study, from 2008, proved something that most people had probably already noticed from the occasional sleepover at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Old people sleep less than young people. That old study concluded that “the most parsimonious explanation for our results is that older people need less sleep.”

Maybe those researchers shouldn’t have been so parsimonious (we’ll save you the trouble of googling the definition; it means “unwilling to spend money; stingy”), because it turns out they’re wrong.

A new study has found that there’s a real, proper neurological explanation. There’s this piece of the brain called the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus, which is a group of neurons tasked with regulating sleep patterns. As you age, these neurons die off. Voila, you can’t sleep anymore. “It’s sort of a chronic insomnia state,” lead researcher, Clifford Saper, told the Huffington Post.

Saper noticed it first in studies with lab rats: those who didn’t have these neurons were real, serious insomniacs. To apply it to humans, he found a dataset of 1,000 subjects from an old memory study in 1997. The subjects tracked rest-activity with a watch-type thing on their wrists (the original Jawbone UP?) for a stretch every two years, and when they died, their brains were donated to science so they could be further studied.

So Saper took 45 brains, some with fully intact ventrolateral preoptic nuclei, some without, and looked at their respective activity data. What he noticed: older subjects slept less and had fewer neurons. Those with more neurons slept longer and uninterrupted.

The whole thing points to some interesting new ideas about how to sleep issues. New drugs could target this brain section, alleviating issues like disrupted sleep by preventing the cause in the first place. Perhaps the days of the Ambien hangover are finally over.

— Josh Segal

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