Sleeping used to be so easy. Look at any teenager, who's likely to have no trouble tumbling into bed at nearly any hour and slumbering through thunderstorms, alarm clocks and even the after-effects of late-night pizza.

But sleeping gets harder as you get older. There are bathroom breaks and bouts of wakefulness that have you tossing and turning. Do those disruptions mean adults need less sleep as they get older? No, say researchers at UC Berkeley, who point out in a new study that decreased sleep as people age increases the risk of health problems.

“Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep,” says Matthew Walker, professor of psychology and neuroscience and lead author on a deep sleep study, said in a statement. “We’ve done a good job of extending life span, but a poor job of extending our health span. We now see sleep, and improving sleep, as a new pathway for helping remedy that.”

Pitfalls of sleep deprivation

tired senior woman on bed In addition to serious health issues, sleep deprivation can cause mental fogginess. (Photo: Lopolo/Shutterstock)

The side effects of too little sleep run the gamut, Walker points out. Sleep deprivation has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity and Alzheimer's disease. We know how a bad night's sleep leaves us foggy, but older people are less likely to be aware of mental fogginess and other cognitive downsides of poor sleep.

The shift to restless nights isn't something that waits until the retirement years, the researchers found. The path to unsatisfying sleep can start as early as your 30s, slowly paving the way to marked sleep deprivation.

In the review, which was published in the journal Neuron, the researchers cited several studies that showed as the brain ages, it has difficulties creating the type of slow brainwaves that promote the kind of deep sleep that has health benefits.

“The parts of the brain deteriorating earliest are the same regions that give us deep sleep,” said lead author Mander, a postdoctoral researcher in UC Berkeley's Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory.

Aging also most often accompanies a drop in deep non-rapid eye movement (NREM) or “slow wave sleep,” and the brain waves associated with it. As people age, their brains also often have troubles generating the neurochemicals that stabilize sleep and help them transition from being asleep to being awake. Disruption the sleep-wake cycle leaves older adults tired during the day but restless at night, Mander said.

The key to getting sleep

If you can get it, deep sleep may act as a fountain of youth as you age, the researchers say. But how do you get it?

Don't automatically turn to sleeping pills.

“The American College of Physicians has acknowledged that sleeping pills should not be the first-line knee-jerk response to sleep problems,” Walker said. “Sleeping pills sedate the brain, rather than help it sleep naturally. We must find better treatments for restoring healthy sleep in older adults, and that is now one of our dedicated research missions.”

It's not just the quantity of sleep, but the quality of sleep. Just because you spend a lot of time in bed, doesn't mean it's the quality of sleep you need.

The good news is that not everyone is susceptible to sleep deprivation as they age, Mander said.

"Just as some people age more successfully than others, some people sleep better than others as they get older, and that’s another line of research we’ll be exploring.”

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.