Regardless of what age you are, sleep is an important part of living a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A good night’s sleep is a vital part of mental and physical health, making it one of the most important aspects of our lives as we age, as much as diet and exercise.
It’s safe to assume that you’ll be aware of the importance of sleep in cognition. You’ve more than likely had a poor night’s sleep and felt the impact that it had on your brain the next day and there are a number of studies that help explain why this is the case. But as you age, getting a good night’s sleep can be more difficult and require conscious effort from seniors to ensure they get the necessary quality of rest.
According the National Institute on Aging, insomnia is one of the most common problems for adults age 60 and older. This may be caused by a number of factors and has significant consequences for brain health and cognition.
Here are some of the most important reasons you need to sleep tight tonight.
Sleep Cleanses the Brain
While you’re asleep, the space between brain cells expands to facilitate the cleaning of waste through a flush of cerebrospinal fluid. Some of that waste is beta amyloid protein, an important factor in the formation of Alzheimer’s disease. These proteins and other toxins which accumulate during waking hours are cleared during sleep.
The landmark study that is often cited regarding this cleaning process was done on animals such as mice and baboons, but researchers believe that this is likely the same in humans given the characteristics of aging brains, particularly in regard to the proteins related to Alzheimer’s. This cleaning process is also part of the reason that human beings feel regenerated after sleep and is vital to our health as we age.
Changes in Brain Structure
A study from Duke-NUS in Singapore has revealed that a lack of sleep also correlates to enlarged brain ventricles, the cavities located in the brain containing cerebrospinal fluid. Healthy functioning of these ventricles is vital to the health of the central nervous system and has significant consequences for the brain when it doesn’t function properly.
The knock-on effect of the largening ventricles is a loss of function and a brain that ages at an increasingly rapid pace. The enlarged ventricles are also be related to a condition called hydrocephalus, caused by ventricles that can not drain the fluid, and thus begin to create pressure on parts of the brain.
A condition common in adults over the age of 60 is Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH), though the term normal is a bit misleading in this instance. Areas of the brain often affected by NPH include those that control cognitive processes such as memory, reasoning, problem solving, and speaking. Once the interference with cognition impacts a person’s ability to carry out routine activities, it falls into the category of what you more commonly know as dementia.
Loss of Sleep = Loss of Memory?
When it comes to memory, sleep is important because it helps the brain consolidate long-term memory. Sleep helps strengthen neural connectivity while also eliminating unwanted connections. This is because the brain makes a lot of neural connections throughout a day, but some of them are simply not worth saving. Sleep is the brain’s opportunities to prioritize memories it needs and lose the ones it doesn’t.
While human being’s capacity for long term memory may be unlimited, accessing the information held in those memories is difficult unless our brains have time to weed out the parts that don’t matter.
It’s worth noting that the type of sleep also matters. For example, Resting Eye Movement sleep is vital for memory and other cognitive functions. Additionally, stage 2 (slow wave) sleep promotes motor skill learning used skills that require muscle memory, such as playing an instrument or performing specific tasks.
Lack of Sleep is Tied to Depression
Healthy sleep patterns are actually a delicate balance. The average adult, regardless of age requires in the range of 7 to 9 hours of sleep. A study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that “people who sleep less than six hours per night or more than eight hours per night are more likely to be depressed than those whose sleep duration was between 6 and 8 hours.”
Older adults may experience sleep loss for a number of reasons, be it side effects of a medication, decreased day time activity or a sleep related breathing disorder such as sleep apnea, which causes pauses and breathing and can increase the risk of stroke and heart failure.
This disruption of sleep patterns also causes a disruption in circadian rhythm, the body’s natural internal clock which in turn can cause depression and mood instability. A study from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow suggests that “circadian disruption is reliably associated with various adverse mental health and wellbeing outcomes, including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.”
This can have an effect on stress levels, personal relationships and the creation of a stable, healthy environment, all of which have significant repercussions for older adults.