Sleep and brain health
Sleep is something many of us take for granted. It helps protect us from a range of conditions that can affect our bodies as we age. As part of our Staying Sharp series, the Global Council on Brain Health tells us why it’s important for brain health too.
- Aim for seven to eight hours sleep, as sleep is important to brain health.
- Sleep patterns change naturally as we age.
- Lifestyle and behaviour choices can affect sleep quality.
- Manage your ‘sleep hygiene’ to help maintain or improve sleep as you age.
- Talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist if you have difficulties with sleep.
Why good shut-eye matters
Many of us have experienced poor sleep from time to time and know it can make us feel sluggish and under the weather. Moreover, persistent poor sleep, known as insomnia, can affect physical health. For example, it increases the risk of diabetes and makes us more vulnerable to accidents and injuries.
We asked whether sleep is also linked with brain health as we age. In our review of the evidence, we found that sleep is essential. Research findings tell us that:
- sleep is vital to cognitive function (thinking skills)
- sleeping on average seven to eight hours each day is related to better brain health as well as better physical health in older people
- the pattern of sleep matters too: a regular sleep-wake cycle is related to better sleep and better brain health.
We recommend making it a priority to get a good night’s sleep in order to maintain cognitive and brain health in later life.
Sleep changes with age
We know that sleep changes with age. Both the quality and quantity go through changes and, because of this, older people should not expect to sleep as well as they did when they were younger.
In general, sleep becomes less deep and people wake up more often during the night or earlier in the morning. These changes are a normal part of ageing and don’t necessarily affect sleep quality or mean you have a sleep disorder.
Sleep also becomes more vulnerable to disturbances. Factors that can disturb sleep include noise, uncomfortable temperature, irregular sleep-wake cycles, too much alcohol, depression or anxiety, and some physical health conditions and medications.
Sleep disorders – for example insomnia, sleep apnoea, excessive sleep and teeth grinding – become more common with age but can often be treated successfully. However, persistent sleepiness in the daytime is not a normal part of ageing.
People with persistent and prolonged (‘chronic’) inadequate sleep are at higher risk of a number of conditions, including depression, dementia, heart disease, obesity and falls.
For all these reasons, managing sleep matters to healthy ageing. For older people, it may become more of an effort to get a good night’s sleep, so it is a good idea to adopt lifestyle habits that will help maintain the restorative benefits of sleep.
How can I tell if I have a sleep disorder
Here are some examples of symptoms that may indicate a sleep disorder. If you experience these symptoms regularly, talk to a health care professional.
- Persistent difficulties falling or staying asleep.
- Drowsiness in the day time.
- Low energy or fatigue.
- Difficulty paying attention and concentrating.
- Abnormal behaviour during sleep, such as kicking, calling out or shouting, acting out dreams.
- Waking up short of breath.
- Uncomfortable sensations in the legs at bedtime.
Looking after your sleep
Here are some of our recommendations for ‘sleep hygiene’ – in other words, adopting good sleep routines.
- Have a regular sleep-wake schedule.
- Get up at the same time each day to help maintain a regular sleep cycle.
- Aim for seven to eight hours’ sleep a night.
- Create a bedroom environment conducive to sleep.
- Keep regular bedtime routines.
- Be physically active during the day.
- Get exposure to daylight by going outdoors or sitting by a window. If that’s not possible, spend time sitting or standing near bright indoor lights.
For most people, the most important thing to promote good brain health through adequate sleep is to keep to a regular duration of sleep and a regular bed-time.
If you experience significant insomnia and sleep hygiene habits like these don’t help sufficiently, talk to a doctor or sleep specialist as they can recommend behavioural therapies and sometimes medication.
To nap or not to nap?
Is napping good or bad for brain health? The answer is not clear as there have been few large-scale studies testing the effect of napping on thinking skills in middle age or older people.
Some recent studies have suggested that an afternoon nap improves some aspects of thinking skills, including memory, in middle age people but the impact on older people was less clear.
We do know, however, that, while short naps of up to 30 minutes can help alertness later in the day, longer naps can be hazardous to night-time sleep hygiene as they are likely to affect the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
We recommend limiting afternoon naps to 30 minutes or less.
Understanding the brain-sleep connection
The information on this page has been adapted from the Global Council on Brain Health's report, 'The Brain-Sleep Connection: GCBH Recommendations on Sleep and Brain Health', published in 2017.
Based on the review of the evidence, the report makes detailed recommendations to help people in different circumstances to manage their sleep:
- to help people aged 50 and above maintain healthy sleep as they grow older
- to help people who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- to help people who may have a sleep disorder
- to help people with dementia who have trouble sleeping
The report lists the members of the Council and the participants in the Council’s expert panel that reviewed the evidence and produced this report.
About the Global Council on Brain Health
The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) was established in 2015 by AARP in the US, with support from Age UK. AARP is the leading US not-for-profit organisation for people aged 50+. The GCBH is an independent collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts from around the world working in areas of brain health related to human cognitive function.