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Tips For Adulthood: Five New Facts About Sleep

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood. Like many middle-aged adults I know, I’m fairly obsessed with sleep. I’ve always been a bad...

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Like many middle-aged adults I know, I’m fairly obsessed with sleep. I’ve always been a bad sleeper, and have tried numerous remedies to help myself sleep better over the years.

I’m know that I’m not the only one with this issue. According to an article in The New York Times, in 2008, 56 million sleeping-pill prescriptions were written, up 54 percent from 2004. Doctors say they are dealing with more than 80 separate sleep disorders.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Arianna Huffington famously exhorted all women to “sleep their way to the top” in 2010 (meaning, ahem, to get more rest…). And as blogger Gretchen Rubin is fond of pointing out, once you hit the middle years, sleep is the new sex.

In light of my ongoing sleep-related issues, I’m always interested to read up on the latest research on sleep. Here are five new facts about sleep culled from studies over the past year:

1. Some people don’t need all that much sleep. I was fascinated to learn – courtesy of The Wall Street Journal – that for a small group of people—perhaps just 1% to 3% of the population—sleep isn’t all that necessary. These so-called short sleepers only need about fix or six hours of sleep a night. They also tend to be energetic, outgoing, optimistic and ambitious – and do so without the aide of extra caffeine. (Think Bill Clinton.) Oh yes, and many of them tend to be bloggers and active on social media. (Oh! To be one of them!)

2. You need less sleep as you age. More good news, at least for some of us. Recent research in the U.K. confirms what had long been suspected: that older people need less sleep. While the average person in their 20s needs about 7.3 hours of sleep per night, the average person between ages 66 and 83 needs only 6.51 hours. The amount of time spent in deep sleep, measured as “slow-wave sleep,” was also less in the older groups.

3. Sleep deprivation blurs the line between being awake and asleep. So much for the good news. Even if you do need less sleep as you age (and especially if you’re not in that magical 3% of people who only need 4-5 hours), getting too little sleep can really interfere with your body’s normal functioning. According to a paper published this month in the journal Nature, when people are really low on rest, parts of their brains can actually go to sleep without their knowledge. So while they might look normal and might even be carrying on with everyday life – e.g., cooking/working/driving (eek!) – parts of their bodies have actually gone into a deep sleep. (As both a control freak and someone who is perennially sleep-deprived, I find this study really troubling.)

4. Getting too much or too little sleep in middle age can impair cognitive functioning. New research out of the University College London Medical school finds that middle-aged people who sleep more than eight hours or less than six score lower on virtually every test of cognitive function. The magnitude of the effect is equivalent to four to seven years of aging. (Yikes! I think I just turned 52!)

5. Naps are really good for you. Naps improve perceptual skills, motor skills, reaction time and alertness. According to a study out of Harvard University, people who took a 60 to 90 minute nap dramatically outperformed those who didn’t. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley suspect that the reason naps are so conducive to productivity is that they clear the short-term memory, making room for new information.

So what are you waiting for? Go take a nap. But please, don’t sleep too long…


Image: sleeping by spentYouth via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. BigLittleWolf May 26, 2011 at 1:12 am #

    It’s so easy to underestimate the need for sleep when you’re in your 20s and 30s. By the 40s, in my experience, it starts to catch up with you. And those cognitive issues? If you’ll excuse the expression… nightmare, for the chronically sleep-deprived.

    Such an important post – and thank you for pulling all these great resources together into one spot.

  2. Elizabeth May 26, 2011 at 2:21 am #

    I love to read all these facts and tidbits, but have to say the funny quips, including the “sleep is the new sex” is my favorite part, because yes, indeed it is so true for my social set: its all about swapping stories about your “sleep situation.”

  3. John Bates May 26, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    I was delighted to hear that naps are good for you, but surprised that a 60 to 90 minute nap was OK. I always thought that if you napped for more than 60 minutes you were likely to wake up feeling more groggy than refreshed, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity to experiment.

  4. delialloyd May 26, 2011 at 9:26 am #

    @John-yes it’s funny about that Harvard study. They present the findings vis productivity with respect to a 60-90 minute nap and yet they recommend a 30 minute nap. I’ll have to read it more carefully to see what that disconnect is all about. (Maybe they know most people won’t do more than 30?) @Elizabeth-totally agree. It’s all about sleep baby! @biglittlewolf=happy that it helps. I love it when I can actually learn something useful about a thing that profoundly affects my life=and all of ours!

  5. Rose May 26, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    I thought the amount of time for a nap had to do with sleep cycle times. You don’t want to have to wake up in the middle of one.

    I’m a big believer in a dark room.

  6. daryl boylan May 26, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

    When all else fails, have major surgery — I haven’t slept so much since I was a child!

  7. Vicki May 28, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    I’m obsessed with baby sleep right now. My almost-5-month-old has days of great sleeping and days where he barely naps at all. What is most fascinating to me is that “sleep begets sleep” – the more he naps during the day the better (and longer!!!) he sleeps at night.

    I’m also amazed to watch myself lose the ability to function as I get less and less sleep. I don’t think I’ve slept a full night in over a year (pregnancy and baby). I try to nap with the baby sometimes, but it isn’t the same. I can’t find the word I’m looking for, I’m not as dexterous, I have lost my initiative. I’m looking forward to the time that we can all sleep through the night. :)

  8. Delia Lloyd May 28, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    @vicki there is almost nothing worse than those first few months of life to kill all hopes of restedness (if that’s a word!)-hang in there, it does get better! Re: napping when baby does. I did this once a day with both kids during first few months of life and it was hugely helpful if you can manage it. Good luck!

  9. Cathy May 28, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

    I am a chronic insomniac. Several years ago I rear-ended a vehicle in front of me because I was so out of it from lack of sleep. From that point on I’ve turned to medication. I am careful to not use it more than a couple of days for fear of dependency, but I need it. It’s clear to me that I cannot function without good sleep.

    • delialloyd May 29, 2011 at 10:04 am #

      @cathy-I’m a big believer in doing whatever you need to do to stay safe (and sane!) I also used to routinely fall asleep while driving and after my second daughter was born, I actually hired a cab to take me to work for 3 months so that I wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel on my 30 min a.m. commute…thanks for weighing in.

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