For the first time, there is research which looks at the physical reason for this lack of sleep. The Sa[er lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) found that certain inhibitory neurons were reponsible for making us sleep. When these neurons are lost in elderly people or those with Alzheimer's the ability to sleep normally is greatly reduced.
The researchers have tested their hypothesis by analysing data from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which has been studying of aging and dementia in almost 1000 people since 1997. This is a remarkable study, healthy subjects entered at the age of 65, and they are followed for the rest of their lives. When they die, their brains are donated for research.
"The fewer the neurons, the more fragmented the sleep became." says Saper. The study may lead to new methods to decrease sleep problems in the elderly and prevent sleep-deprivation-related cognitive decline in people with dementia. Read more about the research here.