You need a healthy brain for a healthy body. And for a healthy brain, you need to get enough sleep every night
The growing popularity of exercise among middle-aged men and women in India is supported by the sheer number of people enrolling in running events in the country. Procam International, which is behind some of India’s most popular and biggest races, said the majority of their runners are between the ages of 30 and 55. While we may not know exactly why this is, it’s not surprising either.
There are numerous benefits of exercise for everyone, including better physical health and a lower risk of death, disease and degenerative disease. Regular exercise can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 28%. All this has recently been confirmed by large-scale scientific studies. As people age and the certainties of youth are stripped away, they may become more aware of the need to take care of their bodies.
However, the one thing that can still be neglected is getting enough sleep, especially given the nature of modern jobs. But ignoring sleep is undermining the benefits of fitness. When exercise is not supplemented with adequate sleep, many of the benefits of exercise begin to fade. Research has shown that sleep also plays a role in maintaining brain health: good quality sleep reduces the risk of dementia by 19%.
A new study, titled Joint associations of physical activity and sleep duration with cognitive aging: longitudinal analysis of an English cohort study, published earlier this month in the journal The Lancet Health Longevity reveals an important link between sleep, exercise and cognition. Researchers found that middle-aged people who sleep less than six hours benefit less from exercise when it comes to healthy brain function.
While previous studies have shown that regular exercise protects against age-related cognitive decline, the new paper finds that this protective effect of exercise decreases in middle-aged people who don’t get enough sleep. The researchers observed 8,958 people over the age of 50 over a period of ten years and studied how different combinations of sleep and exercise habits influence cognition. They found that people who were more physically active but slept less than six hours showed faster cognitive decline.
Cognition is the basic function of the brain, which includes decision-making and the brain’s ability to think, read, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention. Sleep is crucial because it recharges our brain and relaxes our mind. “In the case of sleep deprivation, this recharging process slows down and the brain becomes inefficient, which affects the normal functioning of the brain, leading to memory loss, reduced attention span, poor decision-making capabilities, and impact on daily activities,” says Dr. Ashish Kumar Prakash, Respiratory and Sleep Medicine Consultant at Medanta Hospital, Gurugram. The new study is important because it confirms that exercise alone is not enough to keep your brain sharp, getting enough sleep is just as important.
The finding that stands out is that shorter sleep duration is also associated with faster cognitive decline. “A sleep-deprived person has difficulty concentrating, focusing, paying attention and remembering. Such people tend to remain in a drowsy and drowsy state during the day (often referred to as brain fog) and may sleep at inappropriate times such as while studying, working or even driving, which can lead to accidents,” warns Prakash.
There is also an immediate consequence of not getting enough shut eye. Sleep-deprived people experience a reduced ability to process new information, making them less able to accurately assess situations and react accordingly. It also takes its toll on one’s psychological well-being, affecting the emotional and psychosocial interpretation of events and increasing stress levels. Studies show that insufficient sleep increases our tendency to select and remember negative memories. This, in turn, invariably affects our mood and feelings.
On the physiological side, sleep is essential for the body to recover and heal muscles after exercise because it provides the energy needed for physical activity, says Dr. Shama Kovale, an ENT consultant at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai. “Insufficient sleep can cause a lack of stamina and energy, making it difficult to exercise. Lack of sleep has negative consequences for both physical and mental health. It increases the chance of developing health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke,” she says.
A common folk belief among people is that as we age our need for sleep decreases and sleep problems begin to wake up as we age. It’s true that our sleep needs are lower compared to a baby’s, but regardless of age, everyone needs between 6 and 8 hours of good quality sleep every night, doctors say.
As for the sleep problems and age links, Prakash dispels this myth saying, “Sleep problems have no relationship whatsoever with age. However, with increasing age, levels of neurochemicals such as catecholamine, dopamine, serotonin, and other substances in the brain decrease. Neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which are related to sleep disturbances, can manifest at a younger age if a person is sleep-deprived for a long time. Anyone, regardless of age, can experience cognition problems due to sleep deprivation.”
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit waya book on functional fitness.
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