Sleeping too much or too little can have a lasting impact on the health of your brain, according to a new study published in the May issue of The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
An investigation into the sleep habits of more than 15,000 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study found that those who snoozed for more than nine hours or fewer than five hours each night during mid-or later life encountered more memory troubles as they aged.
“Our findings suggest that getting an ‘average’ amount of sleep, seven hours per day, may help maintain memory in later life,” says lead study author Elizabeth Devore, ScD, an instructor in medicine at the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Also intriguing was the discovery that women whose typical sleep patterns deviated by two or more hours as they transitioned from mid-life to older age saw a decline in their memory capacity that had an impact equal to one or two years of additional age.
Devore and her colleagues feel their findings highlight the role of proper sleep hygiene in helping people preserve cognitive functioning in later life.
Why sleep is so important for your brain
The mind and body benefits of a solid night’s sleep are undeniable, yet science is just now beginning to understand precisely why this activity is so essential when it comes to learning and memory formation.
Experts believe that the lighter stages of sleep, referred to as rapid-eye-movement (REM), help a person process emotional memories and form connections between different bits of information, whereas slow wave sleep—the kind that occurs when an individual enters stages 3 and 4 of non-REM sleep—is especially important for helping information transfer from the short-term memory bank into the long-term memory bank.
An issue faced by many aging adults is a lack of slow wave sleep. One study from the University of California, Berkeley found that adults in their 60s and older experienced 70 percent less slow wave sleep than those in their late teens and early twenties. Regardless of whether a senior has a diagnosis of dementia, a lack of slow wave sleep can still cause their memory to falter.
While not all issues associated with aging and sleep can be remedied, there are a few simple steps that can help people of all ages catch some Zs:
- Stick to a daily routine: Having a regular bedtime and wake up time helps keep your circadian rhythm stay in sync. Planning your evening mealtime so that it’s not within two hours of when you want to go to sleep is also advisable.
- Get outside and get active: Moderate exposure to sunlight helps regulate the body’s production of melatonin—a hormone involved in controlling a person’s sleep-wake cycle. Exercising on a consistent basis has been shown to help people with sleep disorders to sleep better, though it may take a few weeks of regular workouts to see these benefits.
- Avoid alcohol: While alcohol can help you drift off faster, it can also lead to more disruptions in your sleep patterns—inhibiting your ability to enter that coveted stage of slow wave sleep.
For more sleep-inducing strategies, check out these 11 Tips for the Best Sleep Ever
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