Internal clocks lose track of time as people age, study shows

Lisa Wurth

July 20, 2011

Scientists at the University of California Los Angeles recently conducted a study that examines the effect of aging on the brain's circadian clock. The internal 24-hour clock, also known as the suprachasmatic nucleus (SCN), controls the timing of the sleep-wake cycle as well as many other processes in the body.

The study examined the SCN in mice, and the scientists observed that by middle age, the mice displayed signs of disruption in the rhythm, but there was no measurable difference in the mechanisms that create that rhythm.

"The outputs of the central circadian clock start to decline in middle age and suggest that the same may be true in humans," Christopher Colwell, one of the lead researchers, said. "Before this study,we did not know that the SCN as the site where the decline occurs."

Many elderly individuals take sleeping pills to help their SCN rhythms give them the proper amount of sleep, but these pills can also increase the risk of falling during waking hours. Personal emergency response systems can be helpful in case an older adult falls and is injured. The medical alert system can contact help, even in an individual cannot reach a phone.