Research Links Poor Quality Sleep to a Shrinking Brain

As if robbing you of daytime zest isn’t enough, poor sleep has now been linked to a shrinkage of the brain over time. And it’s not just lack of sleep, but poor quality sleep that appears to be linked to the gray matter problem — trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, waking up too early are all involved.

“We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, and sleep has been proposed to be ‘the brain’s housekeeper,’ serving to restore and repair the brain,” said lead researcher Claire Sexton, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Oxford in England.

“It follows that if sleep is disrupted, then processes that help restore and repair the brain are interrupted and may be less effective, leading to greater rates of decline in brain volume.”

However, it’s not yet clear if the brain deterioration leads to poor sleep, or if poor sleep leads to brain shrinkage, or if the two work in tandem.

The results derive from a study conducted over more than three years in Oslo, Norway, involving 147 adults with an average age of 54. The participants’ brains were scanned at the start and then 3.5 years later. They also filled out questionnaires regarding their sleep. On average, the participants took 20 minutes to fall asleep each night and generally slept for seven hours.

Those whose questionnaires indicated sleep issues generally showed shrinkage in one part of their frontal cortex and some atrophy, or deterioration, throughout three other parts of the brain, including parts involved with reasoning, planning, memory and problem-solving.

No tests were done to determine if this shrinkage resulted in any thinking or cognitive difficulties.

“Sleep disturbance is such a common symptom among the general population, and it often becomes worse as you age,” explains Anton Porsteinsson of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York. “There is growing data to suggest that sleep disturbance may be a risk factor for poor outcomes in terms of brain cells and other medical issues as well.”

This study just gives us all one more big reason to seek professional help if we experience long-term sleep difficulties.

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