Every 24 hours your brain engages in an activity that helps preserve your memories, re-energize your thinking abilities and defend against problems like Alzheimer’s.
But as you enter middle-age and beyond, unless you’re careful to help your brain regenerate itself in this way every day, you increase your chances of memory loss and other symptoms of cognitive decline.
It’s tragic that so many people don’t know that this activity – sleeping – is so terribly important to their mental and physical health. And even more important than the quantity of sleep is the quality.
Sleep, which is your brain’s way of recovering from life’s daily grind, is a delicate thing that is easily upset. Strange as it sounds, you may have to make an effort to get good quality sleep. Here are some tips.
At least when we’re young, sleep may seem to be a simple process – you lie down, close your eyes and drift off to slumber land. But research shows it is a carefully ordered entity that proceeds in a consistent manner every night.
Each time you sleep the process takes place in five consecutive stages that repeat several times during the night:
Sleep stage one: Initial light sleep. Eye movement and muscle activity slow. You may experience sudden muscle contractions and see fragmentary images.
Stage two: Eyes stop moving and brain waves generally slow down.
Stage three: Very slow brain waves called delta waves begin with occasional faster waves.
Stage four: Delta waves continue.
Stage five: This is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Muscles are paralyzed, breathing is irregular, blood pressure climbs, heart rate speeds and vivid dreams occur.
The Key to a Healthy Memory
A 12-year study of more than 300 seniors now shows that if your stage five REM sleep is shortened, your chances of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia climb substantially.1
The study shows that the people who did not succumb to dementia spent 20 percent of their sleep time in the REM stage. The folks who did get dementia during the study spent an average of 17 percent of their sleep in REM sleep. The small percentage difference turned out to make a big difference in mental health.
According to the researchers, every one percent drop in REM sleep was linked to a nine percent increase in the risk for developing dementia.
But the time spent in the other four stages of sleep were not related to dementia.
And besides being linked to dementia, other researchers have found that REM sleep controls the formation of memory during other phases of sleep.
A lab test in Japan demonstrates that if REM sleep is shortened or interrupted, the brain waves of the other phases of sleep – which occur when the brain is establishing memories – change in ways that hamper recall of events and information.2
All of these facts about sleep’s influence on brain health show how important sleep is if you want your mind to keep functioning at a high level.
How to Sleep Better
The first step to better sleep is to recognize that you have to get the right amount. Although people differ in respect to how much sleep they need, research has turned up some general guidelines.
Getting less than five hours sleep a night can blow holes in your thinking processes and make it hard to function in daily life. A study in England finds that if you get less than five hours of shut-eye, your brain doesn’t function well the next day — and your mood suffers as well.3
But getting too much sleep can hurt you, too. Research shows that those who sleep more than nine hours every night are at an increased risk of dementia.4 You can get too much of a good thing. But it’s pretty rare in our society. Too little sleep is by far the bigger problem. In fact, it’s an epidemic.
The best idea seems to be to aim for between 6 and 9 hours of sleep a night – wherever you feel most comfortable in that range.
It also matters if your sleep is being interrupted frequently – for instance by sleep apnea or by the need to get up often to use the bathroom (usually due to prostate or bladder problems). Identify the problems that ruin your sleep and get them treated.
To help you get better sleep, also try these tips:
Make sure your bedroom is completely dark, the darker the better. Visible light can interact with proteins in the brain that keep you awake.5 Make sure windows are darkened as much as possible and those little red, green or white “on” lights on electrical devices are covered up. If nothing else works, wear an eye mask.
Keep the bedroom cool and at a steady temperature. Experts recommend a temperature of between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.6
Get out in the sun in the morning. Sunshine in the morning helps keep your internal (circadian) clock on track so you feel sleepier at bedtime.7
Don’t look at video or your smartphone screen too close to bedtime. The light from those devices can make sleep more difficult. And keep those devices out of the bedroom, too.
Don’t get too excited near bed time. Some movies, television shows and news can be too stimulating or upsetting. Even a phone call with a good friend or relative can rev up the mind in a way that’s not desirable just before bedtime.
If you’ve been skimping on sleep, now’s the time to get into a good sleeping routine. It may surprise you how much better you feel every day when you get enough good, deep sleep.