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Chronobiol Int. 2000 May;17(3):285-311.

Contribution of circadian physiology and sleep homeostasis to age-related changes in human sleep.

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Circadian, Neuroendocrine, and Sleep Disorders Section, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, USA.


The circadian pacemaker and sleep homeostasis play pivotal roles in vigilance state control. It has been hypothesized that age-related changes in the human circadian pacemaker, as well as sleep homeostatic mechanisms, contribute to the hallmarks of age-related changes in sleep, that is, earlier wake time and reduced sleep consolidation. Assessments of circadian parameters in healthy young (approximately 20-30 years old) and older people (approximately 65-75 years old)--in the absence of the confounding effects of sleep, changes in posture, and light exposure--have demonstrated that an earlier wake time in older people is accompanied by about a 1 h advance of the rhythms of core body temperature and melatonin. In addition, older people wake up at an earlier circadian phase of the body temperature and plasma melatonin rhythm. The amplitude of the endogenous circadian component of the core body temperature rhythm assessed during constant routine and forced desynchrony protocols is reduced by 20-30% in older people. Recent assessments of the intrinsic period of the human circadian pacemaker in the absence of the confounding effects of light revealed no age-related reduction of this parameter in both sighted and blind individuals. Wake maintenance and sleep initiation are not markedly affected by age except that sleep latencies are longer in older people when sleep initiation is attempted in the early morning. In contrast, major age-related reductions in the consolidation and duration of sleep occur at all circadian phases. Sleep of older people is particularly disrupted when scheduled on the rising limb of the temperature rhythm, indicating that the sleep of older people is more susceptible to arousal signals generated by the circadian pacemaker. Sleep-homeostatic mechanisms, as assayed by the sleep-deprivation-induced increase of EEG slow-wave activity (SWA), are operative in older people, although during both baseline sleep and recovery sleep SWA in older people remains at lower levels. The internal circadian phase advance of awakening, as well as the age-related reduction in sleep consolidation, appears related to an age-related reduction in the promotion of sleep by the circadian pacemaker during the biological night in combination with a reduced homeostatic pressure for sleep. Early morning light exposure associated with this advance of awakening in older people could reinforce the advanced circadian phase. Quantification of the interaction between sleep homeostasis and circadian rhythmicity contributes to understanding age-related changes in sleep timing and quality.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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