In China there is a village called Bapan Village. It is also called Longevity Village. At 115, Boxin Huang is the oldest resident of Longevity Village but he’s not extraordinary there, as many of the residents live long past 100 years. Although many people think it’s their genetic makeup that determines longevity, current medical data shows that only 25 percent of longevity is due to genes and the other 75 percent is affected by lifestyle. It turns out that we are the makers of our own destiny. Through lifestyle choices we can increase the chances of living a longer life, with greater quality.
The 5 most important factors for increasing our lifespan are:
- Be physically active
- Eat a healthy diet
- Get restorative sleep
- Manage your stress
- Be socially connected
Think of your own lifestyle. How many of those factors do you make conscious choices that are healthy and beneficial for a long life?
Of the 5 factors listed, one of the most poorly understood is restorative sleep. What is meant by restorative? And how does that affect our potential to live to 100 years of age?
When we sleep our brain cycles through what is known as sleep staging. There are 3 stages of sleep: light sleep, deep sleep and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. While sleeping, we need a certain amount of each stage to feel rested, energetic, clear minded, and healthy. The total sleep time adults need remains constant throughout life, somewhere between 7 to 8 hours each night. As we become older, people spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep or REM sleep. Changes to our sleep patterns are a part of the normal aging process. As people age, they tend to have a harder time falling asleep and more trouble staying asleep. The result is that many seniors do not sleep in one 7 to 8 hour time period, but rather, sleep in fragmented segments, often taking many naps during the day. Unfortunately, it usually takes 30 to 40 minutes of sleep to enter into deep sleep and up to 90 minutes to reach REM sleep. If your sleep is constantly interrupted, deep and REM sleep are compromised.
The benefits of sleep are more than just not feeling tired and sleepy during the day. Seniors who sleep at least 7 hours during the night are less susceptible to serious illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, dementia, mood disorders and obesity. The long-term effects of poor sleep impact our longevity as we slowly gain weight, suffer more from common colds and the flu – without connecting our poor sleep habits to our growing number of ailments.
Lack of sleep quality has long been linked to a compromised immune system. A recent study by scientists at the Archives of Internal Medicine found that, of the 153 men and women who participated, those who slept less than seven hours a night on average were three times more likely to get sick than those who averaged at least eight hours.
One of the most common causes of interrupted, fragmented sleep is a condition called sleep apnea. It is often characterized by loud snoring, periods of not breathing while sleeping, waking during the night gasping for breath, and waking up in the morning unrefreshed, often having headaches and being sleepy during the day. People suffering from sleep apnea experience episodes during the night when the airway (throat or pharynx) is collapsed or blocked by the tongue and air is not flowing into the lungs. Oxygen, therefore, is not flowing into the body. The person continues to burn the oxygen in the blood and body but it is not being replaced. As the oxygen levels fall, the brain senses the decrease in oxygen and awakens the person to take a breath. The oxygen levels quickly recover, but the person’s sleep is broken. Often it then becomes difficult to return to sleep, and deep and REM sleep are reduced.
Sleep apnea is a very easy condition to diagnose and therapy is very effective. If you snore loudly, and have the other signs of sleep apnea, please consult with your doctor. Treating sleep apnea is one way to ward off the many medical consequences of interrupted sleep and add years to one’s life span.
There are many tips to improve sleep and add to the longevity of your life. Some of them include:
- Many people find that warm milk increases sleepiness, because it contains a natural, sedative-like amino acid.
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine (found in coffee, tea, cola drinks, and chocolate) for at least 3 or 4 hours before bed.
- Try to avoid napping during the day. If you must nap, keep it to less than 30 minutes.
- Exercise (moderately) in the late afternoon or early evening. Exercise increases core body temperature. The cooling of the body when resting after exercise will promote sleep.
- Avoid too much stimulation, such as violent TV shows or computer games, before sleep. Practice relaxation techniques at bedtime.
- Try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake at the same time each morning.
- Use the bed only for sleep or sexual activity. Try not to eat or use the computer in bed.
- Avoid tobacco products, especially before sleep.
If you cannot fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a quiet activity, such as reading or listening to music. When you feel sleepy, get back in bed and try again. If you still cannot fall asleep in 20 minutes, repeat the process.
Insomnia, restless legs, chronic pain, stress and worry all can interfere with healthy sleep. In medicine today, some physicians are sleep specialists. There are many new therapies, medications and technologies to combat sleep disorders. If you are having difficulty sleeping, please consult with your doctor or seek out a sleep specialist. Improving your sleep is paramount to a long and healthy life.