Here's why we lose sleep as we grow older

Eloi Lecerf
Julho 12, 2017

Their blue-lit screens are thought to suppress melatonin, making it harder for you to drift off, and a constantly updating newsfeed can cause the brain to race, rather than relax, before bed - so we wouldn't blame you if you put your rubbish night's sleep down to your Twitter feed.

The Hadza people of northern Tanzania live by hunting and gathering their food, following the rhythms of day and night just as humans did for hundreds of thousands of years before people started growing crops and herding livestock.

The next time you are awake in the middle of the night you can thank your distant ancestors, as new research has shown the reason we sleep less as we get older is to help us survive in hostile environments.

As part of the study, 33 healthy men and women aged 20 to 60 agreed to wear a small watch-like device on their wrists for 20 days, to record their nighttime movements. On average, the participants went to bed shortly after 10 p.m. and woke up around 7 a.m. The results showed that Hadza sleep patterns were rarely in synch with some members retiring as early as 8:00pm and waking at 6:00am while others snoozed until after 8:00am not going to bed until 11:00pm. Typically they woke several times during the night, tossing and turning, getting up to smoke, relieve themselves or tend to crying babies, before nodding off again.

The study looked at a group of modern hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, Africa, who have very similar sleeping environments to our early relatives, without synthetic light, temperature control or mattresses.

Of over 220 total hours of observation, there were just 18 minutes when all adults were sound asleep simultaneously.

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They call their theory the "poorly sleeping grandparent hypothesis".

'Any time you have a mixed-age group population, some go to bed early, some later.

The researchers hope the findings will shift our understanding of age-related sleep disorders. A paper on the study is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The study, done by evolutionary anthropologist Charlie Nunn at Duke University in North Carolina, has said: 'A lot of older people go to doctors complaining that they wake up early and can't get back to sleep.

'But maybe there's nothing wrong with them. "Maybe some of the medical issues we have today could be explained not as disorders, but as a relic of an evolutionary past in which they were beneficial". Other authors include Ibrahim Mabulla and Audax Mabulla of the University of Dar es Salaam.

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