The Wild Reasons Many Older People Wake Up So Early

(intro music) It is a well-known stereotype that older people
sleep less than younger folks, often rising at like, 4AM. But even though it’s a stereotype, there
does seem to be some truth to this. Like, surveys have found that many seniors
wake multiple times in the wee hours before finally rising at the crack of dawn. This doesn’t happen because their bodies
need less shut-eye, though; older adults need just as much sleep as younger ones. And although sleep can be disrupted by many
things associated with aging, like pain or medication, that’s not the full story, either. Instead, studies suggest there are some fascinating
and sometimes bizarre reasons older adults may wake up with the chickens. Including this stuff called brain sand. Which is even weirder than brain sand sounds. The general explanation here is that something
changes with your circadian rhythm as you get older. That’s the roughly 24-hour cycle your body
is on, which affects everything from when you get tired to when you poop. But regarding what changes, the explanations
vary. A lot. Some of these ideas are pretty straightforward. For example, there’s evidence that dying
brain cells may play a role. Hormone changes are also on the table. See, over the course of a day, your brain
triggers the release of hormones into your blood that regulate your body’s internal
clocks. These hormones result in certain proteins
being produced and broken down on a 24-hour cycle, and that influences things like when
you naturally wake up in the morning. So if something changed with those hormones,
it makes sense that your sleep schedule would, too. And according to some evidence, that’s what
happens in older adults. Studies have found that as people age, more of these proteins are produced earlier in the day, which could trigger seniors to rise
and shine in the wee hours. Some scientists hypothesize that a hormone
or some other molecule in the blood is responsible for this. And although it sounds reasonable to begin
with, there’s also a really weird study backing this up. In an experiment published in 2011, researchers
took skin cells from eighteen people in their 20s and grew them in blood serum from eighteen
people between 56 and 83 years old. Serum that, presumably, had this age-dependent hormone or molecule in it. And suddenly, the younger cells started producing
proteins earlier in the day, behaving like they were forty years older! Which is quite the result. Now, more specifically than just “hormones,”
it’s also possible that melatonin could be involved here. That’s one of the hormones that regulates
sleep. Several studies have found that melatonin
levels decline with age, and the reasons why vary from reasonable to almost ridiculous. Like, it seems to happen partly because certain
brain receptors and enzymes associated with melatonin dwindle, and possibly because the
brain uses more melatonin over the years. But this might also be caused by something
in the pineal gland called “brain sand.” Buckle up, because this stuff is about to
get fascinating. The pineal gland is a soybean-sized organ
in the center of your brain, and it releases melatonin and plays a big role in your circadian
rhythm. So, it’s pretty important. But something weird happens to it as people
age: In this gland, calcium deposits can form. Now, calcification occurs in other organs,
too. But the pineal gland has the highest rate
of calcification of any organ in the body. One study found that in people aged forty
to seventy, up to twenty-eight percent of the pineal gland could be studded with these
chunks of calcium, also known as brain sand. It’s little rocks… in your brain! Scientists don’t really know why these deposits
happen, either. Some hypothesize it might be caused by vascular
inflammation or reduced oxygen in the brain, both of which can occur more as people age. These scientists think either of these things
might be causing stem cells in the pineal gland — that is, cells that can turn into
other types — to transform into cells that produce bone. That’s right. Pineal calcification might be similar to the
production of bone in the brain. Which should not be a thing! For now, at least, that’s just speculation. Still, researchers do know that brain sand
reduces the amount of melatonin in the fluid around the brain and spinal cord. And that can lead to insomnia and other sleep
disturbances, including waking up super early. So, from dying cells to hormones to brain
sand, there are tons of ideas about why older adults tend to rise so early. And it’s possible that multiple factors
might be at play here. In any case, there are so many ideas that
some scientists speculate there might be an evolutionary reason behind all this. It’s called the “poorly sleeping grandparent
hypothesis.” It’s the idea that, back when most humans
slept outside or in relatively open environments, it was beneficial for some people to stay
up and remain vigilant for lions and other predators. And as a result, we evolved circadian rhythms
that changed with age and ensured someone was always awake to act as a sentinel. This idea is cool, but it is just a hypothesis. It’s completely possible that our sleep
schedules evolved for a different reason, or as a matter of chance. But it does kind of make you think: If older
people have internal alarm clocks to save their families from man-eating lions, that’s
a pretty heroic reason to get up early in the morning and go to Denny’s. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! We’re able to make content like this thanks
to our patrons on Patreon, who not only have formed a delightful community, but also ask
great science questions. If you’re a patron, you can submit a question
to our QQ inbox, and we’ll check it out and maybe make an episode like this answering
it. This is the best way to send us questions,
but even if you’re not a patron, we’d still love to hear what you’re curious about. You can leave your science questions in the
comments below, if you see one you like, you can give it an upvote, and we’ll do our
best to check them out. (outro music)

100 thoughts on “The Wild Reasons Many Older People Wake Up So Early

  1. I'm 23 years old but already do all of this xD
    I wake up really early (sometimes around 4 or 5 PM, love to watch the sunrise)
    I go to Denny's a lot, cuz the food is awesome and I don't mind being around older people, they're quiet and polite.
    I also don't understand "kids these days".

    Any other early 20's year olds can relate?

  2. Hello, I'm your daily anecdote. It's true. My sisters and I are now in our 60s and 70s and not a one of us sleeps throughout the night. Today, I arose at 2:48 AM. yesterday, I was up at 4. We now understand our dad's referral to "dead as four o'clock" when citing a time when nothing is going on. The same idea was more poetically put by Bob Dylan in the line "thy ancient, empty streets too dead for dreaming," from Mr. Tamborine Man.

  3. I love the idea of a hunter/gather tribe's seniors serving as their dawn watch, a reason besides protecting seniors because they are repositories of a tribe's historical knowledge and traditions.

  4. Wow. Your Dumb As Hell To Think That Age Is The Cause. I'm A 20 Aged Girl And I Woke Up At 3:00 Am Today In Arizona And Now It's 3:30Am In Arizona. Last Night I Went To Bed At 10pm.

  5. A Cat Nap in the afternoon does not hurt either.

    Or, this sleep schedule is more natural when not effected by stupid things like work ? As usual, I am right and everyone else is wrong !

  6. maybe its just because I have been getting up before the chickens for 40 years. who needs an electric rooster to wake up on time?

  7. Its really simple!
    You experience more things in life as you age, the experiences range from a new baby waking you up or a job that gets you up early…Now, we have worries in life as we age.
    Your job,kids, health,etc.
    ….WORRIES will keep you up and alert early to handle/fix these problems/ worries in life!
    That's why your 15yr old son sleeps all day…HE HAS NO WORRIES/PROBLEMS!

  8. From personal experience and the comments here by the more experienced, I wonder if any of the scientists decided to test how true the stereotype actually is. It's like saying all 20 somethings are night owls,

  9. FLUORIDE causes pineal deposits. The pineal gland is our spiritual door. The blockages are very intentional by resource providers.

  10. Both my parents are retired and they wake up around the same time I do when I have to get up and go to work around 6am. For the record, I don’t live with them, I just know because they would text me around that hour.

  11. Is yelling "get off my lawn!"part of the the older people as sentinels hypothesis? So it's some kind of instincual habit they can't help! 😀

  12. My seventy-ish year-old parents on the other hand watch TV for hours on end, talk on the phone for ages, go to bed really late, wake up really late… So, basically, they are your stereotypical teenagers from the 1980s – despite actually being teenagers decades earlier than that. I am the one who gets up before the crack of dawn!

  13. I am old, so I wake up early to see if I am still alive. beside I will have plenty of time to sleep, once I am dead

  14. Scishow pls help I’m sure on one your videos you talked about an online learning sponsor but have rewatched a few videos and can’t find it. Was I wrong?? Thx!

  15. It's pathetic when you are 60, still full of vim and vigor, then fall asleep at 7:30 pm, only to wake up full of p!st and vinegar at midnight. I thought I was just reverting to the medieval practice of bimodal sleeping–first sleep and second sleep. Once I embraced this idea I found myself more rested in the morning and productive during the day. After "first sleep" I enjoy some herbal tea, writing, and reading. Or I pot some seeds for the garden, chop a few vegetables for the freezer, anything that strikes my fancy. Then I go back to sleep until 5 am. There may be a cat nap right after lunch.

  16. Now I know: brain sands run the hourglass backwards!
    I was kept awake this morning while I was working out how to generate Pythagorean triples, something, quite frankly, that had not bothered me for half a century. I was kept awake by what the Zimbabweans call "thinks too much sickness" AKA schizophrenia.

  17. Theory of evolution: Natural selection by survival of the fittest
    Also theory of evolution: What if humans evolved to rely on people with diminishing sensory capabilities as sentinels to save communities from the baddies?
    Sometimes scientists make creationism sound reasonable and logical.

  18. Why do older people sleep less? They don't. Your entire premise is false. I've worked in geriatrics for 12 years and I've never come across a single study nor anecdotal evidence of anything you present here. Your studies linked in description also do not support the idea that older people sleep less.

  19. Can brain sand form in younger folks if they've been influenced by a significant medical disturbance in their calcium-phosphorus balance (say, for example, renal failure and dialysis)?

  20. I guess I've been old since I was a child. I began waking up at 5 a.m. when I was 10, and 50 plus years later I still wake up at the same time.

  21. That's cool. I wonder if there are brain changes in older people that allow them to meditate/become more spiritual to stay out of the fray and be a voice of reason for the tribe. "everyone shut up! you're being annoying. sit down and chill out and help listen for lions who want to eat us."

  22. wasn't the average lifespan of a human being…only as far back as a 100 years ago something like 55. And going back even further ie 400-500 the lifespan was like 40, and if you go back even further…33 was considered old age? how does someone way back when living to 40+ years equate to even being alive let alone being alive to be awake to warn others of danger?

    something to think about.

  23. Older people have lesser demands such as needing less food, less sleep, less exercise, etc. That's all to the benefit for a lesser active being. It's harder to move, harder to gather food, etc. You are much safer being awake than asleep, not just for protection but for your health. On the other hand, you need a modicum of sleep and that's the only real deficit that older people have. It doesn't help that we have reduced holding capacity for certain things…and we have a life-time of things to dream about and wake up over…

  24. I am 70 and I usually get up at 10 or 11. The only time that I get up early is when I absolutely have to and then I feel like crap all day. I have never been a morning person and never will be.

  25. Why do you often choose to use the less common (or even completely novel) pronunciation of words?

    Pineal is commonly pronounced pin-eel.

  26. 😂🤣😂 I’m old I haven’t woken up early since I was retired nearly 6 years ago. Thanks to COVID-19 and self isolation I’m sleeping more than 8 hours today. After all my lack of sleep and shift work I am really enjoying my sleep and napping.

  27. Doesn't most calcification occur because the body sees the the thing as a foreign object and, if it can't absorb it, walls it off (like so-called stone babies)? So the body is seeing the pineal gland as some sort of foreign substance and trying to protect itself.

  28. I would love for you to explain how Sunlight and Vitamin D make me feel awesome in summer but even using as SAD light in winter I feel like death. What is happening in my skin? Are my photo-receptors involved? How is this connected to sleep and circadian rhythms?

  29. You are wrong they sleep a lot , though they wake early . They sleep throughout the day when they find time.

  30. Are you sure they sleep less..? Because I work at an assisted living facility and most of the residents go to bed at like 7-9pm and wake up around 5-7am. We have to do 2 hour checks on every resident and hourly checks on residents who require special care. Usually the only ones that are awake during the nights are the ones in the memory care unit (with dementia or Alzheimer’s) but most of them sleep pretty well, or aren’t awake when we go in there every two hours. Idk that’s just my personal experience.

  31. Old farts wake up at 4 am because they are sleeping before 9 pm. Taking naps because they can factors in on top of that.
    My brother @70 think he's special wakes up at 5 am but he naps at 2/3 pm and is unconscious by 8 pm. Hell, if I when to bed at 8 pm I be awake way before 5 am. (that's 9 hours) and he still passes out mid afternoon. He sleeps about 12 hours a day and he's NOT doing hard labor any more. Eating is the most works he does all day. Funny thing is he thinks he's so damn busy all the time.

  32. Im 23 years old and i wake up early every day simply to get a jump on the day in order to take care of my personal business before my family wakes up, and to get the most time to be productive out of every single day. Early morning is nice and quiet and gives you time and space to think comfortably

  33. 8-9 hours a night, and 2-3 hour nap, daily, because it's a lot easier to be present when there's less present to be in.

  34. I'm 72. Since I retired, I sleep more per night than I ever did. I love to stay up late and sleep in until 8:00 or later.

  35. The more crucial question scientists should be asking is: Why do old people get up early – and then wait til lunchtime to go queue at the post office, when they've had all goddamn morning to go?

  36. 1) brain sand -> fossilisation is starting, therefore calling them " fossils " is true.
    2) In the cave, they get up early to get the best of the leftovers and they can kick the younger people, who have spent the night protecting the tribe, when they are settling down for a sleep, calling them lazy good-for-nothings and that half the day is over etc. In the middle of the day, while the youngsters are out hunting/gathering they will settle down for a snooze ( people are moving around in the camp to keep predators away ).

  37. even though its a stereotype there does seem to be some truth to this… you mean, like most (not all) stereotypes?

  38. Older people don't sleep less and the only reason they wake up so early is because they go to sleep so early… some are asleep before the sun even sets at night… and as illustrated by another comment here, they have to wake up to pee…

  39. I have been advocating for this adaptive hypothesis for decades. Whatever the mechanisms, it makes sense that individuals in a social group, who have passed their reproductive prime, could still contribute to the overall success of the group, even if it meant a sacrifice of their personal well being. Remember, evolution is not about what's best for the individual but what is most adaptive for the species.

  40. Simply, it is unknown yet, none of this has been proved to be the reason, there would be no specific reason.
    I myself refuse to participate in a research for that because there is no strong statistical relation between any reason and aging while if we made any of these research the outcome will be: everything has a relation to sleep time which lead us to no statistical usefull info to talk about.
    All this info are a part of faild researches to prove theories that should not even be considered

  41. When your older you know you shouldn't be lazing round thinking no one's plotting against you and yours, also hey Times getting short, gotta as get up to make the most of what's left of it, but pain…pain.. pain , can't stay in one spot for 20 mins or pain skyrockets through the roof of your mind and you think "how long can o live with this level..of type, non stop mind bending, brain numbing, relationships destroying, finance wrecking, friend stealing never ending pain.. it, well it run deep so no, none sleep.

  42. BS – I get up to pee more often. Otherwise I would just sleep in. Al – you are going to find this out when you get older. Brain changes do occur but not the reason old people get up early.

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