As kids we wanted no part of it. As adults we often can’t get enough of it. And some of us are even proud that we “don’t need” much of it. Sleep. No matter what our age or feelings about sleep, the benefits have been proven in study after study. If you don’t sleep enough, even if you don’t think you are tired the next day, you won’t function at full capacity and you’ll be more prone to making mistakes and losing focus. But now, we have learned that the penalty for not getting enough restful sleep is much worse than that.
According to a powerful new study, not getting enough sleep can literally shrink key parts of your brain.
If you know that you don’t sleep enough (or well enough) and wish you could sleep more or better—or if you are one of those “heroes” who thinks not sleeping is a badge of honor—you must have this new information.
BRAIN LOSS IS REAL
The study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Oslo in Norway, analyzed the brains and sleeping habits of 147 adults who ranged in age from 20 to 84. As part of the study, researchers took two MRI scans of the participants’ brains three-and-a-half years apart. The participants also filled out sleep-quality questionnaires that measured how long and how well they slept over a one-month period. “Poor sleep” generally means that a person takes a long time to fall asleep and/or wakes up frequently during the night and/or doesn’t get enough deep sleep.
After analyzing all the data, the researchers found that poor sleep was associated with reduced volume in the right frontal lobe of the brain. Among other things, the frontal lobe is responsible for problem-solving, making choices and memory. Poor sleep was also associated with deterioration of parts of the temporal and parietal lobes. The temporal lobe helps us sense sights and sounds but also regulates our personality, moods and behavior. The parietal lobe helps us interpret sensory information, including touch and visual perspective.
Pretty important parts of the brain, in other words.
THE SLEEP (AND AGE) CONNECTION
Sleep gives the brain the chance to repair itself in a way similar to how a “defrag” application removes noise and waste from a computer so that it runs more efficiently. But this process seems to naturally become less efficient as we age. Numerous studies have borne this out, and the study on sleep and changes to brain structure did show that changes were more conspicuous in participants who were older than 60. This led the study researchers to question whether poor sleep leads to brain changes (shrinkage and deterioration)…or, in contrast, age-related brain changes lead to poor sleep.
Sleep problems and age-related brain changes might go together as a vicious cycle. Other studies have linked poor sleep with poor cognition and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. But whether lack of sleep ages the brain or an aging brain thwarts sleep, there is only one side of that equation that you can profoundly alter. And you know you can’t keep yourself from aging!
This is why it is vitally important that you do everything you can to keep your brain fit. And that includes getting a restful night’s sleep. The National Sleep Foundation provides these tips…
- Stay on schedule. To the extent you can, stick to the same bedtime and wakeup time to train your body to keep with a healthful sleep-wake cycle.
- Get ready. Relax before you go to sleep. In particular, turn off your electronic devices, such as your computer and television, about an hour before bed and let quiet time replace distraction time.
- Skip the cat nap. Just as snacking can ruin your appetite for mealtime, napping can leave you sleepless at night, so make an effort to limit daytime naps and, as mentioned above, reinforce a sleep- and wake-time schedule.
- Don’t force the issue. If you can’t sleep, don’t force it. Get up, read a book, have a cup of soothing chamomile or passion flower tea and try again later.
- Pass on the nightcap. Don’t drink alcohol close to bedtime. Although an alcoholic drink can help lull you to sleep, it can adversely affect how well you sleep, and you will often find yourself waking up feeling restless and dehydrated a few hours later.