Evolutionary psychology Human evolution Intelligent Design

Evolutionary medicine: Insomnia in the elderly is due to evolution?

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From ScienceDaily:

They call their theory the “poorly sleeping grandparent hypothesis.” The basic idea is that, for much of human history, living and sleeping in mixed-age groups of people with different sleep habits helped our ancestors keep a watchful eye and make it through the night.

“Any time you have a mixed-age group population, some go to bed early, some later,” Nunn said. “If you’re older you’re more of a morning lark. If you’re younger you’re more of a night owl.”

The researchers hope the findings will shift our understanding of age-related sleep disorders.

“A lot of older people go to doctors complaining that they wake up early and can’t get back to sleep,” Nunn said. “But maybe there’s nothing wrong with them. 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,” said Nunn, who also directs Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine, or TriCEM.Paper. (paywall) – David R. Samson, Alyssa N. Crittenden, Ibrahim A. Mabulla, Audax Z. P. Mabulla, Charles L. Nunn. Chronotype variation drives night-time sentinel-like behaviour in hunter–gatherers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2017; 284 (1858): 20170967 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0967 More.

So this is what evolutionary medicine amounts to. Wow.

First, what evidence do we have that very many people lived to be more than fifty years of age before the modern era? Modern humans who still follow a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (as described among the Hamza people) might in fact have access to vaccinations, antibiotics, emergency operations and high risk deliveries at remote hospitals. So in terms of longevity, they cannot be strictly compared with humans who lived before the dawn of these life lengtheners, in terms of what proportion of their group consists of seniors (people over sixty). If very few people lived that long, even if the claims made in the study were valid, the advantage would not be enjoyed by many groups. It is hard to see how it would become fixed in the genral human population.

Non-“evolutionary medicine” reasons that seniors (of whom there are many today) have trouble sleeping are suggested to be

– the aged body produces less melatonin

– needed medications may interfere with sleep

– lifestyle habits, including alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine can reduce sleep

Some sources argue that elderly people actually need less sleep though others disagree.

No information is provided by telling a fanciful tale about the Old Stone Age.

Note: New Scientist story here:

Humans live longer than many other mammals. One theory is that there’s an evolutionary advantage to living beyond reproductive age because grandparents can help look after the children in a group – the grandmother hypothesis.

This study suggests there may be another advantage: “We’re calling it the ‘poorly sleeping grandparent’ hypothesis,” says Samson. “Having a mixed-age demographic increases the sentinel-like behaviour within a group.”

It would have been best to start by demonstrating that very many grandmothers existed into the over-60 age group where people begin to have trouble sleeping.

See also: The Grandmother Hypothesis, yet again

Menopause caused by guys staying home

and

The Science Fictions series at your fingertips: Human evolution

3 Replies to “Evolutionary medicine: Insomnia in the elderly is due to evolution?

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    I think you’re falling into a statistical fallacy on lifespan. Short MEAN lifespans in earlier times were mainly from infant and child mortality. The number of wrinklies, and the survival of codgers and biddies after 65, really hasn’t changed much.

    This fallacy often distorts discussions of pensions and SS. Everyone says that SS was designed for a population that mostly died before 65, so it can’t work in today’s situation where everyone lives to 90. SSA itself made a point of debunking this myth. Survival rates STARTING from 65 have increased by about 2 years since the system began in 1936. Not dramatic.

  2. 2
    News says:

    Good point, polistra at 1. The trouble is, we really don’t know unless we find enough skeletons from the Stone Age to determine what proportion of the population survived to sixty years of age. That is, how many people were really available to be the grandmothers of the Grandmother Effect? Enough to make a difference? I’d hold off for now.

    It’s a plausible enough idea – but first, we need some data.

    As you suggest, life spans of those who survived childhood may not have changed much in the last few millennia. The advent of agriculture, metal tools, etc., probably reduced deaths of mid-life adults from chronic malnutrition, enabling more to make it to their sixties.

    Then, in recent centuries, along came clean water, vaccinations, and the nation state. The senior population was bound to increase in proportion to the overall exploding population because so many children survived childhood, giving them a chance to compete for the Golden Oldies.

    Modern medicine certainly makes a big difference but you have to make it through your fifties before old-age-enhancing medicine can help you through your sixties and seventies.

    At any rate, I will seriously consider claims about seniors and sleep as part of a Grandmother Effect when I know what proportion of the Stone Age population was seniors.

    In the meantime, I will stick with the “reduced melatonin as a natural feature of aging” hypothesis. For that, we have evidence.

  3. 3
    ppolish says:

    The most fearful beasts were Crepuscular – so the old folks had the toughest shift to be on watch. Made them strong grrr.

    Fast forward evolution to the present day and it tells us the worst time of day to walk on grandpa’s lawn – early morning. Good thing most kids sleep late. Thank you Darwin,

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