A study published in the journal Neurology suggests that not having enough sleep may be associated with brain deterioration.
In order to compare the size of the brain and sleep problems, researchers from the University of Oxford in England and the University of Oslo in Norway performed MRI scans on 147 adults, ages of whom ranged from 20 to 84. The average age of the participants was 54 years old. The same procedure was repeated three and a half years later, and they were asked to answer a questionnaire about their quality of sleep.
The questionnaire touched on the quality of their sleep—from how long they sleep, how well they sleep, how long it takes them to fall asleep, their level of sleepiness during the day and if they take sleep medication.
After factoring in each of their weight, level of physical activity and blood pressure, the researchers compared the results of the first and second brain scans. They discovered that those who had poor quality of sleep—35 percent of the respondents—had a bigger rate of brain shrinkage, particularly in the frontal cortex and other parts involved in reasoning, problem-solving and memory.
“We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, and sleep has been proposed to be ‘the brain’s housekeeper,’ serving to restore and repair the brain,” said lead researcher Claire Sexton, in an interview with CBS News. “It follows that if sleep is disrupted, then processes that help restore and repair the brain are interrupted and may be less effective, leading to greater rates of decline in brain volume.”
Sexton also doesn’t dismiss the possibility that it may be the other way around—that a deteriorating brain might be causing or triggering difficulty in sleeping, or a combination of both influencing the other. “It may be that greater rates of decline in brain volumes make it more difficult for a person to get a good night’s sleep.”
For those who have trouble sleeping, Sexton advises against using gadgets before bedtime, drinking coffee late at night, being too physically active during the day, and spending a long time in the sun each day.
She and her colleagues are planning to look into how improving the quality of sleep may slow down brain shrinkage for their next study.