Why do we spend approximately one-third of our lives asleep? Couldn’t we accomplish a lot more if we skipped those recommended seven to eight hours of sleep every night?

Actually, your brain is accomplishing many important tasks while you sleep—tasks that make you far healthier and more productive when awake. Let’s learn exactly how sleep keeps your mind sharp.

The Benefits of Sleep

During sleep, a person goes through four to six sleep cycles, during which both the brain and body experience changes. Scientists are still not sure why these cycles occur, but it is believed that they facilitate mental recovery.

Your sleep is governed by a small, almond-sized part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus regulates body temperature, manages emotional responses, and controls appetite. It is also responsible for releasing hormones and setting your internal body clock. If it does not function properly, you will experience fatigue during the day and sleeplessness at night.

Your brain sorts through the events of your day, deciding which memories to keep and which ones to let go that it considers less important. Sufficient sleep keeps your mind sharp and enables your brain to make the kept memories more fixed in your mind.

When you learn something during the day and sleep well that night, your brain can link these new memories to earlier ones, and may give you some creative ideas while sleeping.

Your brain is also busy cleaning out toxins that have accumulated in it during the day. While you are asleep, the spaces between your brain cells greatly expand, which allows for these toxins to be more easily disposed of. This includes beta amyloid peptides, which are a precursor to the plaques that accumulate in Alzheimer’s disease. And this is why people with sleep problems are often more susceptible to this type of dementia, as their brains cannot accomplish this task as well on insufficient sleep.

People with obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs when the airway is blocked while sleeping, are deprived of the restorative sleep they require. This sleep disorder causes problems with memory consolidation, and also results in susceptibility to other cognitive problems as well as dementia. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, consult your physician, who may want you to have a sleep study performed.

Sleep deprivation has a number of effects on the brain. It decreases your ability to multitask, which is particularly important while using your hands, feet, eyes and spatial judgment to drive.

You also lose some of your creative ability, as your imagination and ability to think of new or alternate solutions to an issue is hampered by a lack of sleep. Learning is more difficult, and you may experience poor emotional and behavioral control.

Sleep problems are also closely connected to depression. Poor sleep can raise the presence of the stress hormone cortisol, which can further reduce sleep, and lead to mood swings.

Sleep becomes more of challenge as you age. Studies show that sleep quality reduces as we get older. An area of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex deteriorates over time, which makes it harder for the brain to process memories.

But you are not helpless when it comes to getting the sleep your mind needs.

How to Improve Your Sleep

According to the Sleep Foundation, there are ways to improve your sleep. These include:

  • Choosing a dark, cool, quiet bedroom in which to sleep
  • Stick to a schedule of when you go to bed and when you wake up
  • Limit technology—no TV, phone or overhead lights
  • Expose yourself to a little sunlight early in the day to regain your body’s natural rhythm
  • Exercise and eat well
  • Relax
  • Be cautious and well-informed about sleep aides

For more information on sleep and your memory, visit Bethesda’s memory care blog.

Whether you choose independent living, assisted living, memory care, or skilled nursing, your experience at Bethesda will be filled with compassionate care and meaningful connections. If you are considering independent living, we encourage you to tour our communities, including Bethesda Barclay House – Clayton, Bethesda Gardens – Kirkwood, Bethesda Orchard – Webster Groves, Bethesda Terrace – South County, Village North Retirement Community – Florissant, and The Oaks at Bethesda Villas – Kirkwood/Webster. If you have any questions about our non-profit senior living communities, contact us today.