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Sleep Elusive? New Study Shows There’s a Reason for That

UNLV joint study finds that elusive sleep patterns as humans age may have evolved to ensure safety.

Campus News  |  Jul 11, 2017  |  By Francis McCabe
UNLV professor Alyssa Crittenden with members of the Hadza of Tanzania.

Alyssa Crittenden, assistant professor of anthropology at UNLV helped conduct a study on the sleep patterns of the Hadza population in Tanzania. (Courtesy Alyssa Crittenden)

It seems to be one of the great tragedies of human life. As we get older, the less sleep we need. 

It turns out there might be a reason for our aging sleeping problems that go beyond our traditional understanding, and what some call insomnia may actually be an age-old survival mechanism.

Researchers from UNLV, Duke University, and the University of Toronto, Mississauga, have found that mismatched sleep schedules and restless nights may be an evolutionary leftover from a time many, many years ago, when a lion lurking in the shadows might try to eat you at 2 a.m. 

A study published Tuesday of modern hunter-gatherers in Tanzania found that, for people who live in groups, differences in sleep patterns commonly associated with age help ensure that at least one person is awake at all times. The findings were reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“The idea that there’s a benefit to living with grandparents has been around for a while, but this study extends that idea to vigilance during nighttime sleep,” said David Samson, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga.

The Hadza people of northern Tanzania live by hunting and gathering their food, following the rhythms of day and night just as humans did for hundreds of thousands of years before people started growing crops and herding livestock.

The Hadza live and sleep in groups of 20 to 30 people. During the day they go their separate ways to forage for tubers, berries, honey and meat in the savanna woodlands near Tanzania’s Lake Eyasi and surrounding areas. Then each night they reunite in the same place, where young and old alike sleep outside next to their hearth, or together in huts made of woven grass and branches.

“They are as modern as you and me. But they do tell an important part of the human evolutionary story because they live a lifestyle that is the most similar to our hunting and gathering past,” said co-author Alyssa Crittenden, assosiate professor of anthropology at UNLV. “They sleep on the ground, and have no synthetic lighting or controlled climate -- traits that characterized the ancestral sleeping environment for early humans."

As part of the study, 33 healthy men and women aged 20 to 60 agreed to wear a small watch-like device on their wrists for 20 days, that recorded their nighttime movements from one minute to the next.

Hadza sleep patterns were rarely in sync, the researchers found. On average, the participants went to bed shortly after 10 p.m. and woke up around 7 a.m. But some tended to retire as early as 8:00 p.m. and wake up by 6 a.m., while others stayed up past 11 p.m. and snoozed until after 8 a.m. 

In between, they roused from slumber several times during the night, tossing and turning or getting up to smoke, tend to a crying baby, or relieve themselves before nodding off again. 

As a result, moments when everyone was out cold at once were rare. Out of more than 220 total hours of observation, the researchers were surprised to find only 18 minutes when all adults were sound asleep simultaneously. On average, more than a third of the group was alert, or dozing very lightly, at any given time.

“And that’s just out of the healthy adults,” Samson said. “It doesn’t include children, or people who were injured or sick.” Yet the participants didn’t complain of sleep problems, he said.

Previous studies have found similar patterns in birds, mice and other animals, but this is the first time the phenomenon has been tested in humans.

“A lot of older people go to doctors complaining that they wake up early and can’t get back to sleep, but maybe there’s nothing wrong with them,” said co-author Charlie Nunn, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke. “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.”

The researchers found that the misaligned sleep schedules were a byproduct of changing sleep patterns common with age. Older participants in their 50s and 60s generally went to bed earlier, and woke up earlier than those in their 20s and 30s. The researchers called their theory the “poorly sleeping grandparent hypothesis.” 

CITATION:  "Chronotype Variation Drives Nighttime Sentinel-Like Behaviour in Hunter-Gatherers," David Samson, Alyssa Crittenden, Ibrahim Mabulla, Audax Mabulla and Charles Nunn. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, July 11, 2017.