Anyone out there interested in looking and feeling older than they are? I didn’t think so.
People spend a lot of time, effort and money in search of anti-aging secrets, when one of the most powerful tools for slowing down the aging process costs nothing and is part of our daily routine.
Plentiful, high quality sleep supports immune health, fuels the restoration and repair of cells and the production of hormones that contribute to youthful appearance, energy, and strength. Sleeping well helps to lower risks for the chronic diseases associated with aging, from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Sleeping poorly—and not sleeping enough—interferes with all this activity, and limits the body’s ability to slow its own aging. The effects of sleeplessness affect the health and resiliency of our cells and the activity of our genes, speeding up the biological aging process.
There’s some important, new information I want to share with you out about how poor sleep—specifically, the kind of sleep-disordered breathing that’s associated with sleep apnea—may significantly advance our biological age.
Sleep apnea speeds the aging process
Sleep apnea and other forms of sleep-disordered breathing, such as snoring, are some of the most common and under-diagnosed sleep problems. Just-released research shows that the disrupted, interrupted breathing that comes with sleep apnea is linked to accelerated aging. This new study—conducted by scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School—is the first to tie sleep-disordered breathing to a speeding up of the aging process. This is critically important new information, so let’s dig in a little deeper to what this study tells us.
In a group of more than 600 adults, scientists analyzed the effects of sleep-disordered breathing on biological age. (The average age of the study participants was 96, and slightly more than half—53%–were women.)
How can scientists take a measurement of biological age? To answer that question, stick with me through a quick science lesson.
In this study, researchers assessed biological age by measuring something called DNA methylation—a biological process that changes the activity of genes. DNA methylation is an indication of what’s known as “epigenetic aging.”
Looking at epigenetics is a way to examine biological age through an assessment of the function of our genes. That’s because epigenetics is about changes to gene activity, or “gene expression” essentially”—the turning on and off of genes. Epigenetic factors are ones that exert their influence over genes throughout the course of our lifetimes, changing how they work and the messages they deliver to cells about how cells function. Our genes provide our bodies with a basic blueprint, or code, for how and when to execute biological functions. Throughout our lifetimes, epigenetic factors influence the how and the when of gene operation, without changing the underlying code itself. When we talk about “epigenetic age,” we’re talking about the aging effects on the function of our genes, which have profound effects for our biological health, vitality, and resilience.
Sleep apnea accelerates ‘epigenetic age’
Scientists assessed participants epigenetic age through a blood test for DNA methylation. They also measured sleep-disordered breathing based on a diagnostic tool that’s used for sleep apnea—the apnea-hypopnea index, which indicates the frequency of episodes of shallow or paused breathing during sleep. Those episodes are the hallmark symptom of obstructive sleep apnea. Scientists also looked at levels of sleep arousal, which is an individual’s propensity to wake during sleep. Sleep arousal is an important factor in sleep apnea. People with untreated sleep apnea often wake dozens, or even hundreds of times a night, which results in fragmented, unrefreshing sleep and deprives them of the restorative, health-protective benefits of sound sleep.
What did scientists learn? That an increasing severity of sleep-disordered breathing was strongly linked to accelerations of biological age. Scientists also discovered that that link between sleep apnea and aging were stronger for women than for men. That’s despite the fact that women tend to experience less severe sleep apnea than men do. This research is preliminary, but it suggests that women are more susceptible to the aging effects of sleep apnea than men are.
Talk about another huge wake-up call for paying close attention to signs of sleep apnea, and taking any concerns to a sleep professional, so you can be treated promptly and effectively. Sleep apnea is a dangerous sleep disorder that, left untreated, can lead to serious health complications. We already know, through an abundance of research, that obstructive sleep apnea raises risks for several serious and chronic conditions that are more common with age, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and cognitive impairment, including an increased risk for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. But this is the first time we’ve seen a direct link between sleep apnea and an acceleration of biological aging.
Other anti-aging secrets of sleep
This is big, important news for our understanding of the impact of sleep apnea and other types of sleep-disordered breathing on health. But we already know of other mechanisms by which poor sleep can influence biological age, speeding up the aging process and making us feel and look older.
One night of sleep deprivation speeds up cellular aging
That low energy feeling after a bad night of sleep, that makes you feel 10 years older than you are? Your cells are experiencing that accelerated aging, too. Research, including this study in a group of adults in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, has shown that it takes as little as a single night of sleep deprivation to accelerate cellular aging. Poor sleepers show greater signs of skin aging, too. Their skin is less healthy and is more vulnerable to environmental stressors, including UV rays and the damage that sun exposure can do to DNA (another epigenetic factor that can contribute to faster biological aging). Good sleepers have greater natural skin protection against external factors that can damage and age skin, and they rebound more quickly from exposure to those factors.
Poor sleep compromises the immune system and increases inflammation
Sleep, immune function, and inflammation share a common regulator. Our sleep is regulated by circadian rhythms, which drive hormones and other physiological changes that cause us to move back and forth along a continuum of sleep and wakefulness throughout the 24-hour day.
Circadian rhythms also regulate our immune system, and with it, our levels of inflammation. When circadian rhythms are disrupted, so is normal immune function. We’re more prone to unhealthful inflammation, and to oxidative stress, which leave the immune system weakened and over-taxed, and are major contributors to the aging of our cells, as well as to our risks for chronic disease. A consistent routine of high-quality, plentiful sleep helps to keep bio rhythms in sync, and allows the immune system to perform at its best, slowing the cellular damage that contributes to physical aging and greater risk for disease.
Sleeplessness interferes with HGH production
Our bodies rely on its growth hormone, also known as HGH, as an essential component of cellular repair, for the restoration and rejuvenation of tissues and muscles throughout the body from daily stress, wear and tear. Our own natural HGH production contributes to healthy skin and to the maintenance of a youthful appearance. I call HGH nature’s Botox! This hormone helps to regulate metabolism, supports strong immune functioning, and offers protection against age-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
HGH declines naturally as we age. It’s produced in greatest amounts during child hood, when it helps fuel growth and development. By adolescence, HGH production is on the decline, and it continues to drop precipitously into middle age, after which it continues to decline at a slower rate.
Most of the body’s HGH production takes place during sleep, in particular during stages of deep, slow-wave sleep. When sleep is restless and fragmented, or when we simply don’t get enough sleep to move through 4-5 full sleep cycles, each containing periods of slow-wave sleep, our bodies are shortchanged on HGH production. That makes us look and feel older, and accelerates underlying biological aging.
I wrote recently about the things your physical trainer might not know about sleep. They probably don’t know how sleep increases HGH production. But you should know that along with sleep, exercise boosts the body’s natural HGH levels. Combining healthy, plentiful sleep and regular exercise is a fantastic way to harness the body’s anti-aging powers.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be aware of the symptoms of sleep apnea and to take any questions or concerns to a sleep professional. It was recently estimated that more than a billion people worldwide are still undiagnosed with sleep apnea. If you need to find a sleep doc near you remember to go to www.sleepcenters.org and put in your zip code, it will give you a list of accredited sleep centers near you. It’s that easy—there’s no longer an excuse for putting it off!
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™