You might think, as I did until the other day, that we need less sleep the older we get. But according to The National Institute of Health, the truth is that older adults actually need as much sleep as young adults - seven to nine hours a night - for optimum health. It's just that it's often harder for older adults to fall and stay asleep. And that's bad for how we age. According the NIH, "Older adults who have poor nighttime sleep are more likely to have a depressed mood, attention and memory problems, excessive daytime sleepiness, more nighttime falls, and use more over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids. Poor sleep is also associated with a poorer quality of life." Yikes! Staying up to watch Stephen Colbert might be ruining my quality of life?
Scientists are realizing more and more the physical effects of sleep deprivation. It weakens the immune system, preventing the body from being able to ward off infections, as well as affecting the body's chemical balances.
Healthy people start to show marked effects of aging after only a few nights of less than adequate sleep. And in a study done at the University of Chicago, Dr. Eve Van Cauter found that "after four hours of sleep for six consecutive nights, healthy young men had blood test results that nearly matched those of diabetics.
Their ability to process blood sugar was reduced by 30 percent, they had a huge drop in their insulin response, and they had elevated levels of a stress hormone called cortisol, which can lead to hypertension and memory impairment. Such physical effects were unheard of before this study, and as a result, scientists are now looking into connections with lack of sleep and obesity."
Obviously, our national sleeplessness is big business. What is new is just how big. In his upcoming book, "Microtrends," the pollster and worldwide CEO of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller, Mark Penn reports the following: "The private sector is leaping on the chance both to help people sleep at night.... The sleeping pill industry is having a field day: The new, nonaddictive Ambien did a record $2 billion worth of business worldwide in 2004, with the number of people aged 20 - 44 who use sleeping pills doubling between 2000 and 2004."
But what is nutty about the growth in the sleep-aid business is the equal growth in the caffeine business. According to Penn, "From the stay-awake side, caffeine-packed energy drinks are the fastest-growing sector of the nearly $100 billion domestic beverage industry; between 2005 and 2008, those drinks are expected to bring in more profits than all regular soft drinks and sports drinks combined." All soft drinks and sports drinks combined! That is a staggering fact.
There's scarcely a magazine that I read these days that doesn't have a piece listing eight or ten things we can do to get a better night's sleep: go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time, don't eat or drink too close to bedtime, don't watch TV or do work in bed, try a lavender bath, meditate, and on and on.
Mark Penn is onto something essential - we're simply medicating ourselves way too much. We use uppers (caffeine) and downers (Ambien, Lunesta) to try and gain equilibrium. I wonder if we scaled back on both we'd get a better night's sleep, save a lot of money, and be healthier? Hmmmmm...I'll sleep on that.