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5 New Facts About Sleep

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Like many middle-aged adults I know, I'm fairly obsessed with sleep. I've always been a bad sleeper, and have tried numerous remedies to help myself sleep better over the years.

I know that I'm not the only one with this issue. According to an article in The New York Times in 2008, 56 million sleeping-pill prescriptions were written, up 54 percent from 2004. Doctors say they are dealing with more than 80 separate sleep disorders.

Perhaps it's no surprise that Arianna Huffington famously exhorted all women to "sleep our way to the top" in 2010 (meaning, ahem, to get more rest).

And as blogger Gretchen Rubin is fond of pointing out, once you hit the middle years, sleep is the new sex.

In light of my ongoing sleep-related issues, I'm always interested to read up on the latest research on sleep. Here are five new facts about sleep culled from studies over the past year:

1. Some people don't need all that much sleep. I was fascinated to learn -- courtesy of The Wall Street Journal -- that for a small group of people --perhaps just one to three percent of the population -- sleep isn't all that necessary. These so-called short sleepers only need about fix or six hours of sleep a night. They also tend to be energetic, outgoing, optimistic and ambitious -- and do so without the aide of extra caffeine. (Think Bill Clinton.) Oh yes, and many of them tend to be bloggers and active on social media. (Oh, to be one of them!)

2. You need less sleep as you age. More good news, at least for some of us. Recent research in the U.K. finds a new link to what had long been suspected: older people may need less sleep. While the average person in their 20s needs about 7.3 hours of sleep per night, the average person between ages 66 and 83 needs only 6.51 hours, according to these findings. The amount of time spent in deep sleep, measured as "slow-wave sleep," was also less in the older groups.

3. Sleep deprivation blurs the line between being awake and asleep. So much for the good news. Even if you do need less sleep as you age (and especially if you're not in that magical three percent of people who only need four or five hours), getting too little sleep can really interfere with your body's normal functioning. According to a paper published this month in the journal Nature, when people are really low on rest, parts of their brains can actually go to sleep without their knowledge. So while they might look normal and might even be carrying on with everyday life -- e.g., cooking/working/driving (eek!) -- parts of their bodies have actually gone into a deep sleep. (As both a control freak and someone who is perennially sleep-deprived, I find this study really troubling.)

4. Getting too much or too little sleep in middle age can impair cognitive functioning. New research out of the University College London Medical school finds that middle-aged people who sleep more than eight hours or less than six score lower on virtually every test of cognitive function. The magnitude of the effect is equivalent to four to seven years of aging. (Yikes! I think I just turned 52!)

5. Naps are really good for you. Naps improve perceptual skills, motor skills, reaction time and alertness. According to a study out of Harvard University, people who took a 60 to 90 minute nap dramatically outperformed those who didn't. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley suspect that the reason naps are so conducive to productivity is that they clear the short-term memory, making room for new information.

So what are you waiting for? Go take a nap. But please, don't sleep too long...

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