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Lack of sleep can make you feel 10 years older, study finds

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Feeling sleepy can make you feel ten years older, according to researchers at Stockholm University, who have discovered that sleep may hold the secret to staying young at heart. 

Do you ever find yourself longing for the energy and vitality of your younger years? Feeling young is not just a matter of perception – it is actually related to objective health outcomes.

Previous studies have shown that feeling younger than one’s actual age is associated with longer, healthier lives. There is even support for subjective age to predict actual brain age, with those feeling younger having younger brains.

“Given that sleep is essential for brain function and overall well-being, we decided to test whether sleep holds any secrets to preserving a youthful sense of age,” says Leonie Balter, researcher at the Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, who worked on the study, which is published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

In the first study, 429 individuals aged 18 to 70 were asked how old they felt, how many days in the past month they had not gotten enough sleep, and how sleepy they were. It turned out that for each night with insufficient sleep in the past month, participants felt on average 0.23 years older.

In a second study, the researchers tested whether it was indeed the lack of sleep causing participants to feel older. They conducted an experimental sleep restriction study involving 186 participants aged 18 to 46. Participants restricted their sleep for two nights –only four hours in bed each night – and another time slept sufficiently for two nights, with nine hours in bed each night.

After sleep restriction, participants felt on average 4.4 years older compared to when having enjoyed sufficient sleep. The effects of sleep on subjective age appeared to be related to how sleepy they felt. Feeling extremely alert was related to feeling 4 years younger than one’s actual age, while extreme sleepiness was related to feeling 6 years older than one’s actual age.

“This means that going from feeling alert to sleepy added a striking 10 years to how old one felt,” says Leonie Balter, who states that the implications for our daily lives are clear.

“Safeguarding our sleep is crucial for maintaining a youthful feeling. This, in turn, may promote a more active lifestyle and encourage behaviours that promote health, as both feeling young and alert are important for our motivation to be active.”

Research

UK body calls for more ageing research backing

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The British Society for Research on Ageing (BSRA) is calling for more public backing in the UK for research to help people stay healthier for longer, as an alternative to charities that support research on diseases.

The greatest risk factor for disease is ageing, but we have very little charitable support for research into how to slow ageing, the organisation warns.

Many diseases such as cancers and heart disease tragically shorten lives far too early, or like Alzheimer’s and arthritis, destroy quality of life for patients and carers. There is understandably huge public charitable support for more research. However, the greatest risk factor for those diseases, and even infectious diseases like COVID, is ageing.

Yet in comparison there is currently very little support for research to understand how we can slow ageing to prevent disease. This approach may be more productive in the long term to fight disease. Furthermore, keeping people healthier for longer, or avoiding chronic diseases all together, would be the most favourable outcome.

The UK population is ageing fast, putting pressure on the NHS and the economy. Despite this pressing problem all around us, there is no accessible way for people to support research into ageing in the UK. The BSRA aims to change that.

With a very small budget and almost completely run by volunteers, the BSRA has successfully funded several small research projects but progress needs to be accelerated. More funding is needed because it takes years to see the effects of ageing, so studies are long. Also ageing affects individuals in different ways, meaning that large numbers of people must be studied to make firm conclusions.

Therefore, there is an urgency to get studies funded and the BSRA has decided to launch an ambitious fundraising campaign to boost research into ageing. Initially, the Society aims to fund a series of one year research projects at the Masters degree level at universities across the UK and with plans to raise much more in the future to support longer and more ambitious projects that will impact the lives of the general public.

Chair of the BSRA, Prof David Weinkove from Durham University, says “The time is now to really get behind research into the biology of ageing. We have fantastic researchers across the country, but they are held back by a lack of funding. Evidence-based research is needed to understand how we people can stay healthier for longer, and to then we must make that knowledge available to as many people as possible”.

Dr Jed Lye says “This is a great opportunity for the public to help, for corporations to contribute, or philanthropists wanting a large impact with a relatively small donation; every £20,000 we raise can fund an entire year of research into ageing and longevity, and gets a budding scientist their research qualification.”

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Research

Older adults less active in society post-pandemic, finds study

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A new study of 7,000 people age 55-plus has found they’re staying at home more and skipping restaurants, the gym and other ‘third places’, since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Years after the US began to slowly emerge from mandatory Covid-19 lockdowns, more than half of older adults still spend more time at home and less time socialising in public spaces than they did pre-pandemic, according to new University of Colorado Boulder research. 

Participants cited fear of infection and “more uncomfortable and hostile” social dynamics as key reasons for their retreat from civic life.

“The pandemic is not over for a lot of folks,” said Jessica Finlay, an assistant professor of geography whose findings are revealed in a series of new papers.

“Some people feel left behind.”

The study comes amid what the U.S. Surgeon General recently called an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ in which older adults— especially those who are immune compromised or have disabilities— are particularly vulnerable.

“We found that the pandemic fundamentally altered neighbourhoods, communities and everyday routines among aging Americans and these changes have long-term consequences for their physical, mental, social and cognitive health,” said Finlay.

‘I just can’t go back’

As a health geographer and environmental gerontologist, Finlay studies how social and built environments impact health as we age.

In March 2020 as restaurants, gyms, grocery stores and other gathering places shuttered amid shelter-in-place orders, she immediately wondered what the lasting impacts would be.

Shortly thereafter, she launched the Covid-19 Coping Study with University of Michigan epidemiologist Lindsay Kobayashi. They began their research with a baseline and monthly survey. Since then, nearly 7,000 people over age 55 from all 50 states have participated.

The researchers check in annually, asking open-ended questions about how neighborhouds and relationships have changed, how people spend their time, opinions and experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their physical and mental health.

“We’ve been in the field for some incredibly pivotal moments,” said Finlay, noting that surveys went out shortly after George Floyd was murdered in May 2020 and again after the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Collectively, the results paint a troubling picture in which a substantial portion of the older population remains isolated even after others have moved on.

In one paper published in February in the journal Wellbeing, Space and Society, 60 per cent of respondents said they spend more time in their home while 75 per cent said they dine out less. Some 62 per cent said they visit cultural and arts venues less, and more than half said they attend church or the gym less than before the pandemic.

While that survey was taken two years ago, the most recent survey taken in spring 2023 showed similar trends, with more than half of respondents still reporting that their socialisation and entertainment routines were different than they were pre-pandemic.

In another paper titled “I just can’t go back,” 80 per cent of respondents reported that there are some places they are reluctant to visit in person anymore.

“The thought of going inside a gym with lots of people breathing heavily and sweating is not something I can see myself ever doing again,” said one 72-year-old male.

Those who said they still go to public places like grocery stores reported that they ducked in and out quickly and skipped casual chitchat.

“It’s been tough,” said one 68-year-old female.

“You don’t stop and talk to people anymore.”

Many respondents reported that they were afraid of getting infected with a virus or infecting young or immune-compromised loved ones, and said they felt “irresponsible” for being around a lot of people.

Some reported getting dirty looks or rude comments when wearing masks or asking others to keep their distance— interpersonal exchanges that reinforced their inclination to stay home.

Revitalising human connection

The news is not all bad, stresses Finlay.

At least 10 per cent of older adults report exercising outdoors more frequently since the pandemic, and a small but vocal minority said that their worlds had actually opened up, as more meetings, concerts and classes became available online.

Still, Finlay worries that the loss of spontaneous interactions in what sociologists call “third places” could have serious health consequences.

Previous research shows that a lack of social connection can increase risk of premature death as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and exacerbate mental illness and dementia.

“For some older adults who live alone, that brief, unplanned exchange with the butcher or the cashier may be the only friendly smile they see in the day, and they have lost that,” Finlay said.

Societal health is also at risk.

“It is increasingly rare for Americans with differing sociopolitical perspectives to collectively hang out and respectfully converse,” she writes.

Finlay hopes that her work can encourage policymakers to create spaces more amenable to people of all ages who are now more cautious about getting sick – things like outdoor dining spaces, ventilated concert halls or masked or hybrid events.

She also hopes that people will give those still wearing masks or keeping distance some grace.

“It is a privilege to be able to ‘just get over’ the pandemic and many people, for a multitude of reasons, just don’t have that privilege. The world looks different to them now,” she said.

“How can we make it easier for them to re-engage?”

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Wellness

Music may have health benefits for older adults, finds poll

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From stress relief and improved mood to keeping minds sharp and connecting to others, a poll of people aged 50 to 80 finds many positives from listening to or making music.

Whether it’s singing in a choir, playing the living room piano, joining in hymns at church, or just whistling along with the radio, a new poll finds that nearly all older adults say music brings them far more than just entertainment.

Three-quarters of people age 50 to 80 say music helps them relieve stress or relax and 65 per cent say it helps their mental health or mood, according to the new results from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging. Meanwhile, 60 per cent say they get energised or motivated by music.

Those are just a few of the health-related benefits cited by older adults who answered questions about listening to and making music of all kinds.

Virtually all (98 per cent) said they benefit in at least one health-related way from engaging with music. In addition, 41 per cent say music is very important to them, with another 48 per cent saying it’s somewhat important.

“Music has the power to bring joy and meaning to life. It is woven into the very fabric of existence for all of humankind,” said Joel Howell, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School who worked with the poll team.

Music also has tangible effects on a variety of health-related ailments, he adds. “We know that music is associated with positive effects on measures from blood pressure to depression.”

The poll is based at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical centre. The poll team asked a national sample of adults aged 50 to 80 about their experiences with and feelings toward listening to and making music.

Many older adults reported making music with other people at least occasionally, whether by singing or playing an instrument. In all, eight per cent said they have sung in a choir or other organised group at least a few times in the past year. About eight per cent of all older adults said they play an instrument with other people at least occasionally.

In all, 46 per cent of older adults reported singing at least a few times a week, and 17 per cent said they play a musical instrument at least a few times a year.

Most respondents reported listening to music, with 85 per cent saying they listen to it at least a few times a week, 80 per cent saying they’ve watched musical performances on television or the internet at least a few times in the past year, and 41 per cent saying they had attended live musical performances in person at least a few times in the past year. That latter percentage was higher among those with higher incomes and more education.

The poll shows other differences between groups in music listening habits and health impacts.

Those who said their physical health is fair or poor, and those who say they often feel isolated, were less likely to listen to music every day. Black older adults were more likely than others to have sung in a choir in the past year, and Black and Hispanic older adults were more likely to say that music is very important to them.

“While music doesn’t come up often in older adults’ visits with their usual care providers, perhaps it should,” said poll director Jeffrey Kullgren, M.D., M.P.H., M.S.

“The power of music to connect us, improve mood and energy, or even ease pain (like 7% of respondents said it does for them), means it could be a powerful tool.” Kullgren is a primary care physician at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and associate professor of internal medicine at U-M.

Howell notes that music helps people keep in touch with one another throughout their lifetime. Indeed, 19 per cent of the poll respondents said music is even more important to them now than it was in their youth, and 46 per cent said it’s just as important to them now as then.

With the rising concern about the health effects of loneliness and social isolation among Americans in general, and especially among older adults, the power of music to connect people and support healthy aging should not be underestimated, Howell says. The NPHA has previously reported on trends in loneliness and social isolation in older adults.

“Music is a universal language that has powerful potential to improve wellbeing,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president of Policy and Brain Health at AARP and executive director of the Global Council on Brain Health.

“AARP’s own research shows that music can play an important role in healthy aging by improving our moods, fostering social connections and, potentially, enriching our brain health.”

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