Aside from cheaper car insurance, a stream of exclusive reader offers in Saga Magazine and the fact that we were able to get a foot on the property ladder without inducing vertigo, there are not a lot of obvious benefits to being 50-plus. So this week, we people of a certain age will have been rejoicing – in the restrained way that one must at this stage of life – at the news that, by the age of 55, our circadian rhythms have finally adjusted to the nine-to-five hours of the working week. Brilliant. We get to be in sync with the reality of our daily lives just in time to be counting down the years before we are thrown on the scrapheap.
All of the research – led by Dr Paul Kelley of Oxford University's Sleep and Circadian Institute – seems to point to the fact that we are, for the vast majority of our lives, being forced to operate in a sleep-deprived society. We are, Dr Kelley told the British Science Festival in Bradford this week, making ourselves exhausted and ill. Being forced to be at our school and work desks too early, he insists, is affecting our "physical, emotional and performance systems".
This research demands to be, and is being, taken seriously. In a pioneering project, 100 schools are being asked to take part in an experiment to see if starting study later – Dr Kelley recommends 10am for 16-year-olds and 11am for university students – will improve academic results, and he hopes that the experiment will curtail weight gain, diabetes, schizophrenia and drug-uptake among the young people taking part.
The over-50s, though, can forget all about the alluring promise of a bit of a lie-in. As we age, Dr Kelley reports, we start to recover a more regular sleep pattern. "At around the age of 55, you finally get back to the sleep/wake times you had when you were 10," he says. And yet, here I am, sitting at my desk feeling restless, bleary-eyed, a little dulled around the edges and entirely uncomforted by being told that I am finally at the optimum stage of life to cope with the working week.
Because what Dr Kelley's no doubt impeccable research entirely fails to take into account is another societal change outside of his remit: the huge rise in the number of people having children later in life. While the average age for new mums has now reached 30 (and for dads, it's closer to 33), there are plenty of people – such as myself – leaving it even later than that. And while, after a night of unbroken sleep, I might well be bounding towards my desk for a 9am start with a spring in my step, as it is I am dragging my weary, sleep-deprived bones to the Tube each morning, trying to shake off the feeling that I am trudging through quicksand after another night of wake-up calls from one small child or another.
Sleep deprivation, as Dr Kelley points out, poses a serious threat to our performance, our mood and our mental health. But are we really going to change the way we all work just to allow ourselves some extra kip? Because, let's be honest, no one in a position of any power is going to be interested enough in Dr Kelley's theories to bring about the sort of revolutionary world-changing adjustments he is encouraging them to make. Traders, apparently, need to clock in at stupid o'clock to watch this or that market opening or closing. With no international trade in circadian rhythms, it is therefore impossible to put a price on a few more hours under the duvet.
And if you doubt that not getting enough sleep can, as Dr Kelley claims, lead to frustration, anger, impulsive behaviour, weight gain, risk-taking, high blood pressure and stress, it is worth remembering that Donald Trump – by his own proud admission – sleeps just three to four hours a night. µ
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