Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk about brain fitness at a meeting of the Miami Rotary. After my talk, there were lots of questions. Several of the questions had to do with sleep and brain fitness. All of the questions seemed pretty good, so I thought I would answer them here in case other folks are interested. The first question is about sleep and brain fitness.
How we sleep changes as we get older. Many people over 50 feel as though that they don’t sleep as well as they used to. Their perception is supported by research evidence. Studies of sleep and aging show that how people sleep change as people get older. The normal cycles of light sleep, deep sleep, and rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep don’t occur in the same way. Deep sleep is often associated with feeling rested when you get up in the morning, and studies show that older people may not get as much deep sleep. It may take you longer to get asleep, and you may wake up more often during the night.
Older adults may get sleepy earlier and take more naps during the day. It’s not unusual for me to see people who complain about waking up too early in the morning. When I ask about their sleep, though, I find out that they go to bed at 9:00 PM and wake up at 3:00 AM. It’s true that’s a little early – but often these folks take a two-hour nap in the afternoon. They get eight hours of sleep, but it’s distributed in a different way. Although it’s sometimes hard to stop taking naps entirely, it’s often helpful to try to keep them to a minimum. If you sleep a lot during the day, you may not sleep very well at night.
So what about brain fitness and sleep? Study after study has shown that sleep deprivation affects your mental abilities and mood. So if you feel as though you can’t concentrate or work as well as you’d like after you don’t get enough sleep, it’s probably true. This may be especially true for tasks that require attention for a long time. Some of those kinds of tasks are harder for older adults to begin with, and may be even harder if you don’t sleep. Don’t think that you can’t function at all if you don’t sleep well – you’ll usually be able to function. But odds are you won’t function as well as you would like.