Common sense and our mothers tell us that a good night’s sleep is worth its weight in gold. Well, as it turns out, scientists have recently learned that a good night’s sleep is worth more than that – it is key to preventing diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
In a recent article called “Cleanse the Brain” published in the AARP Bulletin, the author suggests that most of us have never thought about how the brain gets rid of waste. As it turns out a newly described sanitation system called the glymphatic system removes brain waste through a complex process that occurs only during sleep.
According to neurologists, that means that 5-6 hours of sleep is not enough to give the brain time to clear out the waste. Instead, all ages, but especially older adults need at least 8 hours of good sleep with few interruptions to maintain and improve brain health. The article underscores that because older people tend to experience irregular sleep hours (think bathroom trips, naps…), it is important to look at how we can identify the signs of disrupted sleep and improve our sleep health.
Brains “drain” waste ONLY during sleep
Although most of us figured that sleep was good for us because rest was good, we didn’t know why. We were also aware of people who could survive on very little sleep like the hyperactive Martha Stewarts in our lives. But in the past few years scientists are taking a good look at how impaired sleep may contribute to diseases such as Alzheimers, which often evidences a build-up of plaque.
In a recent paper, Polish scientists suggest that the function of the glymphatic system is probably impaired when an older patient reports statements like this:
- It happens often, my sleep was not deep enough.
- I woke up feeling bad.
- Most days I try to improve how I feel by taking an afternoon nap.
- I have a a hard time getting things done.
- Taking the sleep medicine diazepam causes me to feel bad in the morning.
As a result, these researchers suggest it is very important for health care providers and caregivers to understand the role sleep plays in the older adult’s overall health and to take steps to share that information.
Red Light, Blue Light
In addition to longer, uninterrupted sleep, older adults — or anyone, for that matter — need to understand that the color of light before sleep truly affects the quality of their sleep. Writing in the April 6, 2017 issue of nextavenue.org, Bill Ward notes that before sleep, exposure to certain colors of light can be a big problem. Blue/purple light (think TVs, laptops, iPads, cell phones) has rapid wavelengths, which prompts the body to produce more of the hormone serotonin, which basically peps us up instead of making us sleepy.
However, orange/red light (now available in LEDs) prompts the production of melatonin, which helps us sleep. And because older bodies produce less melatonin, we need to stack the deck and avoid those blue lights before bedtime.
Tips for improving sleep quality from AARP and quartz.com:
- Sleep on your side in the fetal position. Left side is best because it maximizes venous return. (left, right sides & back are best).
- Reduce liquids well before bedtime.
- Smile to retrain brain to be positive
- Eat a Mediterranean diet.
- Congratulate yourself for small wins – brain likes us to feel good about ourselves.
- Keep your body active – decide how you like to keep active, just keep moving.
- Stretch your brain muscles – learn something new (foreign language, new instrument, juggle, tai chi).
- Sit upright – the upright position increases energy levels and enhances overall mood. The “iPhone” head down, collapsed position engenders hopelessness.
- Sleep with your phone away from your head – stay away from sleep-disrupting blue light!
Armed with this new information about how truly imperative it is to get a good night’s sleep, let’s all try to push those phones and computers out of the bedroom and adopt more sleep-friendly habits. The payoff looks like the biggest ever – an overall improved quality of life for all ages.