Everyone knows that it’s not unusual to sleep more poorly as we age. The aches and pains that come with becoming older keep us from being comfortable at night, and leading less active lifestyles can also contribute to a bad night’s sleep. Scientists now say, however, that they have learned another reason sleep can be a problem for senior citizens.
A study led by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and the University of Toronto/Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center, reported in the journal Brain, demonstrated for the first time that a group of neurons are substantially diminished among the elderly and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. The loss of these neurons has proven to cause sleep disruption in lab animals.
“On average, a person in his 70s has about one hour less sleep per night than a person in his 20s,” explains senior author Clifford B. Saper, MD, PhD, Chairman of Neurology at BIDMC and James Jackson Putnam Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. “Sleep loss and sleep fragmentation is associated with a number of health issues, including cognitive dysfunction, increased blood pressure and vascular disease, and a tendency to develop type 2 diabetes. It now appears that loss of these neurons may be contributing to these various disorders as people age.”
Researchers analyzed data from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a community-based study of aging and dementia which began in 1997 and has been following a group of almost 1,000 subjects who entered the study as healthy 65-year-olds and are followed until their deaths, at which point their brains are donated for research.
The authors examined the brains of 45 study subjects whose average age at death was nearly 90. They identified ventrolateral preoptic neurons by staining the brains for the neurotransmitter galanin. They then correlated the actigraphic rest-activity behavior of the 45 individuals in the year prior to their deaths with the number of remaining ventrolateral preoptic neurons at autopsy.
“We found that in the older patients who did not have Alzheimer’s disease, the number of ventrolateral preoptic neurons correlated inversely with the amount of sleep fragmentation,” says Saper. “The fewer the neurons, the more fragmented the sleep became.” The subjects with the largest amount of neurons (greater than 6,000) spent 50 percent or more of total rest time in the prolonged periods of non-movement most likely to represent sleep while subjects with the fewest ventrolateral preoptic neurons (less than 3,000) spent less than 40 percent of total rest time in extended periods of rest. The results further showed that among Alzheimer’s patients, most sleep impairment seemed to be related to the number of ventrolateral preoptic neurons that had been lost.