When an adult starts to display cognitive issues, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and think, “It must be dementia!” And yes, sometimes the person is developing a type of dementia. However, that’s not always the case. In fact, memory loss can actually result from one of the most basic bodily functions – sleep (or the lack thereof).
It turns out that a new study suggests that sleep can have a major effect on the brain’s ability to function. This study involved 2,822 men who, on average, were 76 years of age. The researchers followed these participants for about three years in order to gauge their sleep and brain function.
Researchers used an actigraph device that was placed on each participant’s wrist in order to record wrist and body movements that were then used to identify sleep issues. In this particular study, the devices measured a variety of indicators, including total sleep time and sleep efficiency. This data was collected over five nights, on average. The researchers also asked the participants to report on their sleep quality and daytime sleepiness. They also assessed the participants’ cognitive function using the Modified Mini-Mental State examination.
Their analysis found that participants who had reduced sleep efficiency, greater nighttime wakefulness, more long episodes of being awake and poor self-reported sleep quality experienced more cognitive decline. Furthermore, participants who experienced large amounts of poor sleep quality had a 40-50 percent higher risk of decline in executive function, which involves abilities such as planning, decision-making and abstract thinking. This decline was the equivalent of aging five years. Interestingly, it was the quality of sleep instead of quantity of sleep that affected the participants’ brain function.
Therefore, it’s really important to get quality sleep. And that can be difficulty since sleep patterns change as part of the body’s aging process. As we age, we tend to stay awake due to changes in sleep patterns, which is known as “sleep architecture.” This architecture changes so that older people spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep as opposed to being in deep sleep and active dreaming (REM sleep).
Additionally, adults often have to deal with sleep disorders, insomnia and physical and psychiatric illnesses (as well as medications used to treat these conditions) that can affect sleep patterns. We also may have increasing issues with circadian rhythms that trigger our bodies sleep.
If you or a loved has concerns about sleeping, it’s important to talk to the doctor. The issues may be caused by sleep apnea, which is often associated with snoring and can cause breathing to stop. The brain is then alerted, thus causing the person to awaken and, thus, resume breathing. Obstructive sleep apnea can result not only in memory issues, but also increased risk of depression, headaches and cardiovascular disease. Other physical issues that can hinder sleep include restless leg syndrome and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Besides talking to the doctor, there are additional steps that you can take to set up an environment that optimizes sleep. These steps include:
- Make the bedroom and the bed into a calm, relaxing place that is only used for sleeping and sex.
- Remove all technology (cell phone, television, etc.) from the bedroom.
- Consider using blackout curtains to limit the amount of light that comes in to the room. Also, look for other sources of light that might be a distraction.
- Sound also can keep someone awake. Therefore, try to limit noise or use white noise to mask offending sounds.
- Temperature also can affect sleep. A cooler temperature often helps encourage sleep.
- Relaxation techniques can help ease tension and relax muscles, thus leading to sleep.
- Certain smells – like lavender – can encourage relaxation and, thus, sleep.
- Wearing comfortable clothes to bed also can help.
- Limit the time you spend in bed if most of that time is spent awake.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine consumption in the evening as these both can disrupt sleep.
Making an effort to get a good night’s rest is really important. Not only does it help you be ready for the next day’s to-do list, sound sleep also protects your brain’s ability to function long-term.
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
Blackwell, T., et al. (2014). Associations of objectively and subjectively measured sleep quality with subsequent cognitive decline in older community-dwelling men: The MrOS Sleep Study. SLEEP.
National Sleep Foundation. (2009). Aging and sleep.
National Sleep Foundation. (2009). Aging and sleep -- treatment.
Preidt, R. (2014). Poor sleep tied to mental decline in older men. MedlinePlus.
Renaud, B. (ND). 5 ways to fall asleep faster. Health.com.
Published On: April 07, 2014