This study explored the relationship between age-related elevations of plasma norepinephrine (NE) levels (thought to reflect heightened sympathetic nervous system activity) and sleep. Plasma NE levels were consistently and significantly greater in 8 aged than 10 young men across a 24-hr study period. For both groups, plasma catecholamine levels remained stable near bedtimes and rise times and during spontaneous and experimentally induced nighttime awakenings; reversal of the sleep/wake pattern (nighttime wakefulness, daytime sleep) had little effect on the 24-hr plasma NE or sleep patterns, indicating that elevated NE cannot be attributed to altered sleep/wakefulness per se. The aged group had significantly more wakefulness and significantly higher plasma NE levels while in bed in all study conditions. These two variables were significantly correlated, suggesting that heightened sympathetic activity may fragment sleep with wakefulness in the aged.
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