Laugh all you want now about Grandma's 8 p.m. bedtime; after reading this, you might just want to thank her. One team of researchers report that older adults' earlier body clocks may have evolved to ensure that at least one person was always awake to watch over a family group. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Scientists believe that many groups of social animals take turns sleeping and standing guard. This sentinel hypothesis, as it's known, is easiest to observe in a line of sleeping ducks; the last duck in a row literally sleeps with one eye open. But we didn't know whether this phenomenon extended to humans.
To find out, researchers collaborated with Hadza people of northwestern Tanzania. Many Hadza maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, working and sleeping far from the noise and light pollution of the cities. The researchers recruited a group of 33 adults between the ages of 20 and 60 and gave each person an actigraphic (movement-tracking) wristband. For 20 nights, the actigraphs recorded participants' tossing and turning, their waking, and their stillness in sleep.
The big-picture results looked a lot like you might expect. Average bed- and wake-up times were around 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., respectively. But those were just the averages. Within even this small group, two familiar chronotypes emerged: the older early birds, who bedded down around 8 p.m. and woke by 6 a.m., and the younger night owls, who were up past 11 p.m. and slept until 8 a.m.
Most compellingly, the researchers say, nobody ever slept through the night. Each person woke several times per sleep period, whether to pee, go for a smoke, soothe a crying baby, or just roll over in bed. The resulting gaps in sleep time meant that someone in the group was awake at almost all times. Out of 20 nights, there were only 18 minutes in which the entire group was sound asleep.
Co-author Charlie Nunn is an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University. He says the group's early bird/night owl split, combined with the frequent mid-sleep awakenings, may be our bodies' way of keeping our families safe.
"If you're in a lighter stage of sleep, you'd be more attuned to any kind of threat in the environment," he said in a statement.
Nunn and his colleagues suggest that the staggered sleeping shifts are not an accident but an adaptation.
"A lot of older people go to doctors complaining that they wake up early and can't get back to sleep," Nunn said. "But maybe there's nothing wrong with them. Maybe some of the medical issues we have today could be explained not as disorders, but as a relic of an evolutionary past in which they were beneficial.”
Maybe. Maybe not. It's quite possible that older adults' sleep issues are just that: issues, and signs of an aging body. We'll need a lot more research on the subject before we can say for sure. In the meantime, let's cut Grandma some slack. Evolutionary advantage or no, we all just want to sleep.