Sleep and the Aging Brain

No one chooses to spend hours staring at the ceiling, but can it be avoided?

Though neurologists have long suspected that poor sleep contributes to age-related cognitive decline, they weren’t exactly sure what went wrong or why. Recent studies at the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, point to structural changes in the middle frontal lobe of the brain that develop slowly as we age. These changes interfere with the deep, restorative sleep necessary for the formation of long-term memories.

A good night’s sleep can also help decrease the risk of dementia. “Sleep turns off the toxins that build up in the brain and ultimately lead to Alzheimer’s disease,” says Harvard neurology professor Rudolph Tanzi.

The Quest for Rest

How much is enough? There’s no magic number, but the National Sleep Foundation suggests adults aim for seven to restlessleepnine hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Advice to “get a good night’s sleep” might prompt a sigh of frustration. Who doesn’t want a good night’s sleep? No one is choosing to spend hours staring at the ceiling, wishing for unconsciousness. If only we could fall asleep and stay asleep through the night!

Make sure that you are setting yourself up for bedtime success.

» Stick to a regular bedtime schedule, going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day.

» If sleep escapes you, don’t toss and turn in bed. Get up, read a book, or listen to music until you start to feel sleepy

» Avoid smoking and eating or drinking caffeine or highly acidic foods two to three hours before bedtime.

» Unplug from all technology–TV, computers and cellphones–at least 30 minutes before lights-out.

» Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary, using the bed for sleep and sex only.

» Exercise is terrific, but for some, working out too closely to bedtime can interfere with falling asleep.

» Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and guided imagery before bed may also help.

Still wide awake? If you experience chronic insomnia, make sure to tell your doctor so the two of you can rule out more serious causes, including sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a breathing disturbance that wakes the sufferer throughout the night, and can have serious consequences. Some other illnesses, as well as certain medications, can rob you of your sleep as well.


According to the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institues of Health, about 30%-40% of adults say they have some symptoms of insomnia within a given year, and about 10%-15% of adults say they have chronic insomnia. “Sleep loss means mind loss,” says John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning at Seattle Pacific University and author of Brain Rules. “When you sleep poorly, your mood, memory, creativity, and problem-solving capabilities suffer.”