Researchers investigating how the brain could be made more resistant to age-related decline have found that the key is sleep, according to an article published in Australian Aged Care INsite.

The University of Queensland’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences researcher, Dr Martin Sale, said artificially boosting sleep-like brain activity in the elderly could help prevent a decline in brain function.

“Sleep plays a key role in promoting neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to re-wire itself – but as sleep quality reduces as we age, our brain function is affected,” Sale said.

“Sleep is important in helping to consolidate the changes to brain function that occur whilst you are awake; for example, if you have a good night’s sleep after studying, you’re much better at remembering the material you learnt for an upcoming exam.

“A portion of sleep, the deep part of sleep known as slow wave sleep, assists with strengthening the brain changes required for learning and memory that occur throughout the day.

“We would like to artificially cause the relevant brain regions to oscillate at this slow frequency, to mimic slow wave sleep, but when the brain is awake.”

Researchers can achieve this by passing a “small alternating electric current” between two parts of the brain, using what is described as a safe and often completely unnoticeable procedure.

“In essence we are tricking the brain into thinking it’s asleep to harness the beneficial aspects of sleep even though it’s still awake,” Sale said.

Sleep hygiene theory

New Zealand website Family Doctor provides some good strategies for getting a good night’s sleep, based around sleep hygiene theory, which focuses not only on the physical aspect of sleep but also on the mental, pre-sleep environment. The main recommendations include:

  • Sleep only as much as you need to feel rested and then get out of bed once you do
  • Keep a regular sleeping schedule
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the afternoon and evening before bed
  • Exercise regularly for at least 20 minutes 4-8 hours prior to sleep
  • Do not go to bed hungry or having drunk excessive amounts of water
  • Ensure your bedroom environment (temperature, noise, light) is sleep promoting, this includes minimal noise, light and a comfortable temperature
  • Limit the use of computer, TV, and other screens which light up directly before bed
  • Manage stresses and worries before you try and sleep
  • Some sleep clinicians suggest strictly limiting the bed to sleep and sex, whereas others allow listening to music and reading in bed

 

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