Like most Americans, I rarely get the doctor-recommended eight hours of sleep every night. Usually, I get too little sleep. Occasionally, I get too much. So I worried when I saw a new study that found that how much women sleep in middle age can affect their memory later in life.
Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston evaluated the link between sleep duration and memory in more than 15,000 women age 70 and older who were stroke and depression free at the start of the study. Women who slept less than five or more than nine hours each night in midlife had more memory problems — equivalent to an additional two years in age — than those who slept seven hours a night. In addition, women whose sleep patterns changed two hours a day between midlife and later life also had poorer memory than those continued to sleep the same amount of time each night, according to the study published May 1 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
“Our findings suggest that getting an ‘average’ amount of sleep, seven hours per day, may help memory in later life,” said lead author Elizabeth Devore, with Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
But millions of people struggle to get those seven hours. Middle-aged women, in particular, are the most likely to use sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta and similar medications, according a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s unclear whether using sleeping pills allows people to get the restful sleep they need.
This study adds to a growing body of research on sleep and the brain. Just last week, Canadian researchers found that those who suffer from a restless sleep problem called rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder are at high risk for developing Parkinson’s or another form of brain disease. And in the last several years, doctors have discovered that the brain flushes away toxins during sleep, perhaps explaining why too little sleep is linked to development of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
In the most recent study, researchers speculated getting too much sleep may be a sign of disruption in natural circadian rhythms that have been linked to brain problems. Changes in sleep patterns may also signal an underlying health problem that affects the brain.
Devore said it’s crucial to identify behavioral factors, such as sleeping habits, that can help preserve memory later in life. The answer, though, isn’t just in understanding that sleep is important for the brain. We know that already. The crucial question is how to help women — and men — get the restful sleep they need.
Here, then, are a few tips on how to get a restful sleep:
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at about the same time every day, even on weekends. This will help set your body’s sleep-wake cycle.
- Limit caffeine. Caffeine can disrupt sleep many hours after you take it in. Caffeine is not just in coffee and tea but also in some soft drinks, medications and foods. Avoid caffeine after lunch, and cut down on your total daily use if you need to.
- Don’t drink alcohol within six hours of bedtime. Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but it can disturb sleep during the night.
- Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime. Eat dinner early in the evening, and avoid rich or spicy foods that may be hard to digest. Check out these 12 Foods That Sabotage Sleep.
- Get regular exercise. Regular exercise will help you sleep better. But for some, exercising late in the day can make it harder to get to sleep.
- Evaluate your sleep environment: Create a room that is dark, comfortable and cool for the best possible sleep, according to the Better Sleep Council.
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