You know how you feel when you haven’t slept well. Not only are you tired and lethargic, but you can’t concentrate or think clearly. Trouble is if your sleep problems become chronic, research shows you might suffer more serious effects on your cognitive function over the long term.
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“How can you be in your best health when one-third of your life is spent in sleep and you cannot do that?” says neurologist and sleep medicine specialist Winnie Pao, MD. “It’s like overdrafting from your bank account. If you overdraft every day, pretty soon you can’t pay back the interest.”
Sleep is vital for the health of your brain and body, yet a 2018 National Sleep Foundation (NSF) poll indicates that only 10 percent of adults prioritize sleep over other aspects of daily living, such as work and hobbies. So, give your sleep the attention it deserves, and work to address any sleep problems that can sap your cognitive health as well as your energy.
Sleep disorders + your brain
Research has linked untreated sleep disorders like insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea with a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Recent evidence suggests that insomnia and OSA also may have deleterious effects on your brain. For instance, in a study of 208 cognitively normal people, ages 55 to 90, researchers found that over a two-year period, OSA was associated with increasing markers of beta-amyloid, a protein fragment comprising the amyloid plaque buildups found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, or AD. Accumulation of beta-amyloid occurs in the early stages of AD, but adequate sleep is believed to help clear beta-amyloid from the brain.
The study’s findings don’t prove that OSA and other sleep disorders cause AD or other dementias, or that treating sleep problems can prevent those diseases. However, “For people who have sleep problems, if you can improve sleep, that can lead to improvements in cognition,” says geriatrician Ronan Factora, MD, with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Geriatric Medicine. “From what I’ve seen clinically, treatment of sleep apnea can provide some positive benefits for people in terms of concentration and ability to focus.”
The best way to address sleep problems
So, how much sleep do you need for better brain function? The answer is unclear. But in general, the NSF recommends that adults ages 26 to 64 aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night, while those ages 65 and older should get seven to eight hours nightly.
“Who is to say you have to sleep all at once? If life doesn’t allow you to sleep for seven hours all at once, take a nap a little later, but not too late in the day,” Dr. Pao advises. “People in other countries have siestas, and they’re happy. Everyone is different.”
Tell your doctor if you’re experiencing chronic insomnia, document your sleep habits and share your notes with your physician. Your doctor may recommend a treatment like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, which teaches you, among other things, ways to improve your sleep hygiene.
Dr. Pao says prescription sleep medications should be used in the lowest effective dose ― and only for a limited time. Keep in mind that using certain prescription sleep aids and nonprescription products, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl®) and nighttime pain relievers, has been associated with cognitive side effects in older adults. Plus, use of sedating medications may worsen OSA, Dr. Factora cautions.
Report any OSA symptoms to your physician:
- Loud snoring and interruptions in breathing (as reported by your bed partner).
- Excessive daytime sleepiness.
- Morning headaches/sore throat.
- Teeth grinding.
- Drool on your pillow.
- Memory/concentration problems.
And, discuss your possible need for continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), dental appliances or other treatments for OSA.
“There are clear cognitive areas that can be affected by lack of sleep or obstructive sleep apnea,” Dr. Factora says. “There really is compelling evidence to do something about these sleep disorders because the effects of lack of treatment may be longstanding. They shouldn’t be ignored.”
This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Men’s Health Advisor.