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Poor Sleep Patterns Hold Serious Risk

A new study conducted by researchers from the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute in San Francisco is providing more evidence that poor sleep patterns and disrupted sleep can lead to serious medical problems, most notably loss of memory and concentration equivalent to aging your brain by five years.

The study was led by Dr. Terri Blackwell, and involved the participation of 2,820 elderly men. The average age of those in the study was 76 years old. Each of the men’s sleep patterns were monitored over a five night period and then they submitted to tests for their ability to make decisions, correct errors, make plans, and trouble shoot, as well as their abstract thinking. The results showed a clear risk of impaired mental faculties accompanied disrupted sleep, with the damage done decreasing ability by up to fifty percent. This is the equivalent of aging five years. Interestingly, Dr. Blackwell indicated that what appeared to be most important was not how long the subjects slept, but how well. “It was the quality of sleep that predicted future cognitive decline in this study, not the quantity.”

Previous studies have shown that a period of three years of sleep disruption creates a permanent decline in cognitive ability, though the reason and mechanism behind the decline is yet unknown. According to Dr. Blackwell, “With the rate of cognitive impairment increasing and the high prevalence of sleep problems in the elderly, it is important to determine prospective associations with sleep and cognitive decline.”

The president of the American Academy of Sleep medicine, Dr. Safwan Badr, says that the San Francisco study is yet another reminder of the importance of sleep. “This study provides an important reminder that healthy sleep involves both the quantity and quality of sleep.  As one of the pillars of a healthy lifestyle, sleep is essential for optimal cognitive functioning.”

As more research focuses on finding what the actual impact is of sleep on the brain, concerns about sleep disorders and declines in cognitive ability continue to grow.  A study conducted a few months ago at Uppsala University in Sweden has found that even a single night of sleeplessness has the same physical impact on the brain as sustaining a blow to the head. The researchers found that a variety of chemicals were present in the brain after sleep deprivation had occurred, and that these chemicals are toxic to the brain. They build up as more and more sleep deprivation occurs, and have been linked to some of the plaques that are present in the brains of patients suffering from a variety of cognitive maladies, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. The Swedish researchers concluded that one of the functions of a good night’s sleep is cleansing the brain of these toxins that arise during the day, and that by missing quality sleep the toxins slowly build up and do damage.

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