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Study Uncovers why Seniors Sleep Less

Update Date: Aug 21, 2014 11:18 AM EDT

Researchers have known that as people age, they start to have more difficulties sleeping and staying asleep. Despite knowing this, they have not fully understood why sleep problems develop. In a new study, researchers examined this relationship and found that sleeping complications could be tied to a loss of brain cells.

"On average, a person in his 70s has about one hour less sleep per night than a person in his 20s," senior author Dr. Clifford Saper, chairman of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said reported by HealthDay.

In this study, the research team from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and University of Toronto reviewed data taken from the Rush Memory and Aging Project. There were almost 1,000 seniors involved, all who were 65-years-old at the time of enrollment back in 1997. As a part of the project, the seniors will be followed until their death. Their brains will be donated for research. The seniors had agreed to wear small devices on their wrists for seven to 10 days every two years. The device tracked their movements.

The team focused on 45 brains and discovered that older individuals and Alzheimer's patients experienced a significant decline in their ventrolateral preoptic neurons. Alzheimer's patients lost these neurons at a faster rate. The ventrolateral preoptic neurons are responsible for regulating sleep patterns. The researchers believe that when these neurons die due to old age, sleeping problems arise.

"The more of these cells you lose from aging, the harder time you have sleeping," Dr. Saper told the Huffington Post.

He added, "These findings provide the first evidence that the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus in humans probably plays a key role in causing sleep, and functions in a similar way to other species that have been studied. It now appears that loss of these neurons may be contributing to these various disorders as people age."

The study, "Sleep is related to neuron numbers in the ventrolateral preoptic/intermediate nucleus in older adults with and without Alzheimer's disease," was published in the journal, Brain.

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