How sleep affects the way we age

Annabel Streets and Susan Saunders are working mums with backgrounds in research and with family histories of age-related diseases that include dementia, heart disease and cancer.

Once duties permitted, they dedicated their days to research; reading medical books and journals, culinary histories, and tomes on neuroscience. They spoke to doctors, scientists and scholars, and wrote The Age-Well Project.

Last week, we covered the first two cornerstones of healthy ageing – diet and exercise. This week, staying engaged and sleep go under the microscope.


The third cornerstone of healthy ageing: staying engaged
Most studies of long-term health have found social interaction and continued mental engagement to be a key predictor of how well we age.

Stay engaged: socialise, think, learn, join in …
According to neurologist and SuperAger researcher Emily Rogalski, the healthy elderly have unique personality profiles, which include high levels of resilience, optimism and perseverance. But they also have active, engaged lives involving plenty of stimulating social relationships, and brains continuously challenged by reading, travel, hobbies and learning.

Blue Zoners – the five clusters of exceptionally long-lived people from Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia, Ikaria (Greece), Nicoya (Costa Rica) and Loma Linda in California – are similarly engaged with brain-testing activities and with their communities.

Dan Buettner, the original Blue Zone researcher, identified close social and familial bonds as essential factors in longevity, along with a strong sense of purpose and faith, and a propensity to continue working for as long as possible.

Claudia Kawas, a geriatric neurologist at the University of California, studies SuperAgers and Blue Zoners. She uncovered several factors that both have in common, including attending weekly religious services, reading, and taking part in physical and non-physical leisure activities with other people.

We interviewed several SuperAgers for this book and found them, without exception, to be extraordinarily engaged.

As we researched, we kept coming across studies demonstrating the age-enhancing powers of extensive social networks; happy marriages; pet ownership; meditation; learning languages and instruments; having strong senses of purpose and gratitude; being optimistic; doing something creative; laughter; and developing an enthusiasm for novelty. All of these, it appeared, could affect how healthy, happy and disease-free our later years might be.

Researchers don’t fully understand why or how, but they suspect it’s because activities and behaviours like these keep our brains working, while simultaneously providing an effective antidote to stress.

Here’s the paradox, however: many of us settle down in mid and later life, turning away from activities that are difficult, challenging or just different, and settling into old familiar habits and friendships. Yes, mid-life is an excellent time to eradicate chronic stress from our lives. But we need the fizz and buzz of change and novelty to keep us engaged, to keep our brains re-wiring. We need to be getting up and out, not merely for the exercise but for the social interaction it brings.

We’ve taken the advice of a neuroscientist who has studied the brains of SuperAgers in minute detail, Professor Feldman Barrett. According to Barrett, we should all “engage in strenuous mental activity on a regular basis … and dive into it until your brain hurts.” Do this with others to ensure a complete brain and social workout.

Key principles of staying engaged

  • Cultivate a wide range of friendships, including new ones.
  • Learn something new, and when you’ve mastered it, try something else. Ideally learn in company rather than alone. Instruments and languages particularly benefit the brain, but anything that makes your brain ache will do.
  • Read books, of all genres. Every day.
  • Stay working, paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time.
  • Adopt a creative hobby.
  • Develop a mind-set that is optimistic, grateful and purposeful.
  • Care for someone: a partner, a dog, those in the local hospice. Someone needs you, and science suggests you might benefit, too.
  • For maximum bang for buck, select activities that involve other people, a brain workout and movement in a single shot. Dancing, tennis, a walking book group or singing in a choir are excellent options.


The fourth cornerstone of healthy ageing: creating the right environment for good sleep, lustrous looks and enhanced health
Getting enough quality sleep has repeatedly been found to help us age better, both physically and cognitively. When we’re well rested, we’re also able to enjoy a more robust social life, not to mention feeling more optimistic and empowered. Looking good can help us feel better too, as can toxin-free air, a full set of pain-free teeth, eyes as sharp as pins and a vigorous immune system. While our fourth cornerstone focuses on sleep, we also investigate several other factors critical to ageing well, from the medications that might be hindering rather than helping us, to vitamin supplements, hidden pesticides and healthier hair.

Master the art of sleep (but don’t fret over sleep deprivation)
When we started our careers, sleep was frowned upon. In the heady days of the upwardly mobile 1990s, and beyond into the era of boom and bust, we worked long days and slept short nights. Sometimes we didn’t sleep at all.

The emergence of new technology (laptops, email, social media) and, for us, the arrival of babies, meant sleep became yet more elusive. Suddenly, we were living in a 24/7 world.

Unsurprisingly, this affected many of our generation, and insomnia became a shared and much discussed topic of conversation.

Since then, a series of studies has demonstrated the perils of not sleeping enough, and, contrarily, of sleeping too much.

Poor sleep has now been linked to many degenerative diseases.

In 2007, the World Health Organisation categorised night shift work as a carcinogen due to its suspected impact on sleep. Neuroscientists at the University of California tracked the sleep patterns and memories of older people, hailing sleep as “the missing piece of the Alzheimer’s jigsaw”. Poor sleep, they explained, creates a channel through which beta-amyloid protein attacks the brain’s long-term memory. Another report from Florida’s Scripps Research Institute found that quality sleep was crucial for maintaining long-term memory. A report from the University of Moscow linked poor sleep with twice the risk of a heart attack and four times the risk of a stroke, the author describing poor sleep as a “killer” – right up there with smoking. Other studies have linked continuous poor sleep to obesity, depression, poor immunity, anxiety and some cancers. Despite the deluge of studies linking poor sleep to disease, however, a new meta-study of data from 37 million people reveals that insomnia doesn’t mean an early death.

Worse than not getting enough sleep is worrying about not getting enough sleep, so please take note of this meta-study and remind yourself of it whenever you’re confronted with a headline indicating that not enough sleep leads to certain death.

It’s not only too little sleep that can affect our health. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that sleeping more than needed could also reduce longevity, suggesting that longer sleep is possibly more detrimental to heart health than short sleep. As we edited this book, a report from the National Cancer Research Institute linked too much sleep with a 20 per cent increase in breast cancer risk for each hour slept above seven to eight hours. Seven to eight hours, we’re told, is the sweet spot for the average person when it comes to sleep. Bear in mind you might not be average!

On a more mundane note, we knew from our own experience that a string of sleepless nights left us less inclined to exercise and more inclined to reach for sugary carbs. It also left us more susceptible to coughs and colds, bad moods and low energy levels.

Recently, scientists have discovered that many people are genetically predisposed to poor sleep. But does this mean that we have to consign ourselves to a life of sleep deprivation? The answer is no. Prolonged, poor sleep can be addressed and cured.

When we realised that we could function surprisingly well with no sleep whatsoever and that bi-phasic sleep (sleeping in two stretches rather than one) was not historically uncommon, we stopped worrying. Knowing we were sleeping more like our ancestors did in the past removed much of the angst that accompanied being awake in the middle of the night. We then tackled our poor sleep by following these key principles.

Key sleep principles

  • Exercise every day, outdoors if possible.
  • Embrace guilt-free afternoon naps.
  • Change how and what you eat and drink in the evening.
  • Allow time to unwind before bed.
  • Invest in a new mattress and pillow (if need be) and some essential oils.
  • Turn off sources of blue light an hour before you want to sleep.
  • Allow fresh air into your bedroom and keep the temperature down.
  • Keep regular hours.
  • Make time for seven to eight hours of sleep, but don’t fret if sleep eludes you. Instead, get up or read a book.

Our fourth cornerstone also examines other elements within our environment that can affect us as we age. Researchers are becoming increasingly aware of the detrimental impact of industrial chemicals, pollution, even the chemicals within some daily medications. Many of these chemicals are new, making our generation the first to have sustained long-term exposure. To help our bodies survive this onslaught, we need to know what to avoid and what the alternatives are. We also need robust, vigorous immune systems. Our fourth cornerstone considers how best to build immunity.

In a highly commercial world, we must also be capable of navigating the marketing promises that assault us daily. Are supplements helpful or harmful? Which, if any, should we invest in? And at what dosage? Similar questions can be applied to beauty products: will they really give us glowing skin and thicker hair or should we focus on food, sunscreen and serums that protect against pollution?

Recent research has thrown the spotlight on healthy teeth and gums – gum disease has been implicated in Alzheimer’s – so how should we take care of our mouths? In the meantime, failing eyesight is one of the factors identified as particularly distressing for older people. So how can we start protecting our eyes before it’s too late?

Environmental principles for ageing well

  • Pay special attention to your gums and teeth.
  • Build immunity.
  • Know the medications linked by researchers to Alzheimer’s.
  • Eat the right foods for your skin, eyes and hair.
  • Use an anti-pollution serum every day and sunscreen when the sun’s out.
  • Avoid chemical-laden personal care products – opt for organic where possible.
  • Forget supplements, except Vitamin D – and zinc for immunity.
  • Care for your eyes with regular check-ups.
  • Avoid pollution-heavy areas.
  • Counter pollution with the right food, the right house plants and an air purifier.
  • Avoid pesticides and other chemicals when gardening, eating and cleaning.

Are you playing an active hand in how you are ageing? What is your greatest challenge?

This is an extract from The Age-Well Project by Annabel Streets and Susan Saunders, published by Hachette Australia.

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