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I am famously (or infamously) oblivious once I fall asleep at night. Crying babies, thunderstorms, smoke alarms, and other disturbances will reliably startle My Lovely Wife into action, but I’ll only learn of the incident over breakfast. I once slept through a mild earthquake while on a military deployment in central Greece.

There are disadvantages to such stubborn somnolence that may not be immediately obvious to someone suffering from insomnia. Some level of wakefulness, for instance, would certainly come in handy in the event of nighttime household emergencies or tornado warnings. Also, on those rare occasions when I do toss and turn, I find myself struggling mightily to function the following day. MLW operates pretty well on three hours of sleep and eventually catches up; I fall apart. My body tends to protest when it doesn’t get about nine hours of uninterrupted slumber.

And sleepless nights don’t always exact their toll only on the next day. Volumes of research over the years have shown how poor sleep patterns can increase our risk of developing a variety of chronic illnesses, including hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. More recently, studies have pointed to sleeplessness as a factor in cognitive dysfunction and multimorbidity, the development of two or more chronic diseases.

Researchers at the University of Helsinki, using data from the Helsinki Health Study, found that participants who struggled with insomnia in middle age tended to display poor cognitive functioning after retirement. Not surprisingly, the longer their symptoms of sleeplessness persisted during midlife, the longer people suffered from poor memory, concentration, and learning ability after their working years. Those who were able to improve their sleep patterns, however, showed less cognitive dysfunction later in life, a fact that may offer some hope for the sleep-deprived, says lead study author Tea Lallukka, PhD.

“Based on our findings, early intervention tackling insomnia symptoms, or measures aimed at improving the quality of sleep, would be justified,” she notes. Some of these mitigating factors are already well documented: a regular sleep schedule, an optimal sleep environment, ample exercise, curbing evening coffee and alcohol consumption, avoiding late-night snacking, and shutting down electronic devices well before bedtime.

Those remedies may also help older adults avoid developing multiple chronic illnesses as they age.

A team of researchers from Université Paris Cité and University College London last month published the results of a study lauding the disease-fighting powers of a full night’s sleep. Reviewing sleep-duration reports from nearly 8,000 study participants over the age of 50, Séverine Sabia, PhD, and her team concluded that those who slept for five hours or less per night were more likely than their counterparts who enjoyed seven hours of slumber to develop multimorbidity. The degree of elevated risk ranged from 30 percent at age 50 to 40 percent at age 70.

Writing in PLOS Medicine, Sabia points to a variety of physiological factors that may explain the onset of chronic illnesses among sleep-deprived older adults, but she notes that mortality risks depend on the type of diseases that happen to manifest in each individual.

“Sleep duration and quality might impact health via their role in regulation of endocrine and metabolic processes, inflammation, and circadian rhythm,” she explains. “There was no evidence in the present data that short sleep duration was associated with progression to death among those with existing chronic disease(s).” Instead, she adds, mortality risks are “likely to be driven by the association of short sleep with onset of chronic diseases that are themselves associated with risk of mortality.”

In other words, my golden slumber may protect me from developing dangerous health threats that don’t already reside in my aging body, but it probably won’t do much on its own to keep existing conditions from eventually inviting a visit from the Grim Reaper.

Could be worse, I figured.

Then, just as a bit of smugness was beginning to coalesce, I noticed that Sabia’s research also found that a small cohort of septuagenarians who reported sleeping longer than nine hours per night also tended to develop multiple chronic diseases. The sample (122 study participants) may be too tiny to matter, she admits, and their extended slumber may actually be a result of their existing illnesses. Still, it’s just another reminder that there are no guarantees in life, and no single behavior, habit, or discipline that will allow you to coast effortlessly into a happy, healthy dotage.

So, I’ll climb into bed around 10:30 tonight with the hope that I’ll rise, refreshed, around 7:30 tomorrow morning. At my age, it’s always appropriate to celebrate a little when your feet first meet the floor — whether or not an earthquake happens to be shaking it at the time.

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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