How Sleep Quality Affects Your Brain Health: A New Study Reveals

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Sleep is essential for our well-being, but how does it affect our brain health? A new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association has found that getting either too much or too little sleep is associated with changes in the brain that have been shown to increase the risk of stroke and dementia later in life.

The link between sleep and brain health

The study, conducted by researchers at Yale School of Medicine, examined brain images of close to 40,000 healthy, middle-aged participants who reported their average sleep duration, including daytime napping. The researchers evaluated two measures of brain health: white matter hyperintensities (WMH), which are lesions on the brain indicating brain aging and small vessel disease, and fractional anisotropy, which measures the uniformity of water diffusion along nerve axons. More WMH, larger WMH, and lower fractional anisotropy are associated with increased risk of stroke and dementia.

The researchers found that compared with optimal sleep (7–9 hours per night), participants with short sleep (less than 7 hours) had higher risk of WMH presence, larger WMH volume where WMH was present, and lower fractional anisotropy. Long sleep (more than 9 hours) was associated with lower fractional anisotropy and with larger WMH volume, but not with risk of WMH presence.

The implications of the findings

The findings suggest that suboptimal sleep duration is significantly correlated with poorer brain health profiles in middle-aged individuals without stroke or dementia. This adds to the mounting evidence that sleep is a prime pillar of brain health, and that it can be a modifiable risk factor for brain health later in life.

 Brain Health

“Conditions like stroke or dementia are the end-stage result of a long process that ends tragically,” says Santiago Clocchiatti-Tuozzo, MD, postdoctoral fellow in the Falcone lab at Yale School of Medicine and first author of the study. “We want to learn how to prevent these processes before they happen.”

The study also highlights middle age as an important time to adjust our sleeping habits to support brain health. “Sleep is starting to become a trending topic,” Clocchiatti-Tuozzo says. “We hope this study and others can offer insight into how we can modify sleep in patients to improve brain health in years to come.”

Some tips for better sleep

According to the American Heart Association, some of the ways to improve sleep quality and quantity are:

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends and holidays.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and heavy meals close to bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and comfortable.
  • Turn off electronic devices at least an hour before bed.
  • Engage in physical activity during the day, but not too close to bedtime.
  • Avoid napping during the day, especially if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night.
  • Seek medical help if you have symptoms of a sleep disorder, such as snoring, gasping, or choking during sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, or difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

Sleep is not only important for our physical health, but also for our mental health. By getting enough quality sleep, we can protect our brain from the effects of aging and disease, and enjoy a better quality of life.

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