Maintaining a healthy body involves regular exercise, a practice well-documented for its preventive effects on chronic diseases, life-extending properties, and its ability to counteract dementia and alleviate cognitive decline, among various other benefits.
However, the importance of adequate sleep should not be underestimated, especially in the context of reaping the advantages of exercise and preserving cognitive function as one ages.
In a recent study, researchers uncovered that individuals engaging in more frequent and intense physical activity, yet sleeping less than six hours a night, exhibited a more rapid overall cognitive decline compared to those who exercised less frequently but enjoyed sufficient sleep.
Dr. Mikaela Bloomberg, the lead author and a research fellow at the Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care at University College London, remarked, “Our study suggests that getting sufficient sleep may be required for us to obtain the full cognitive benefits of physical activity.”
She further emphasized the critical interplay of both sleep and physical activity when addressing cognitive health: “This underscores the crucial consideration of both sleep and physical activity in tandem when addressing cognitive health,” as stated in her official statement.
Maintaining a healthy body involves regular exercise, a practice that has been scientifically proven to ward off chronic diseases, prolong lifespan, counteract dementia, and alleviate cognitive decline, among a myriad of other benefits.
However, the importance of adequate sleep should not be underestimated, particularly in relation to the advantages of exercise and cognitive function as one ages.
In a recent study, researchers discovered that individuals engaging in more frequent and intense physical activity, yet sleeping less than six hours a night, underwent a more accelerated overall cognitive decline compared to those who exercised less frequently but enjoyed sufficient sleep.
Dr. Mikaela Bloomberg, the lead author and a research fellow at the Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care at University College London, offered insights, stating, “Our study suggests that getting sufficient sleep may be required for us to obtain the full cognitive benefits of physical activity.”
“This highlights the pivotal need to consider both sleep and physical activity in conjunction when addressing cognitive health,” she stressed in an official statement.
Over a decade, researchers meticulously followed nearly 9,000 adults who participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, a longitudinal study funded by the UK government and the US National Institute on Aging, specifically focusing on individuals aged 50 and older.
In addition to initial evaluations, participants underwent follow-up interviews and cognitive testing every two years. Those diagnosed with dementia or exhibiting test scores indicative of cognitive decline were excluded from the study. The findings, published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity journal on Wednesday, extend and reinforce earlier research, demonstrating that individuals engaging in higher levels of physical activity and obtaining six to eight hours of nightly sleep showcased improved cognitive function as they aged.
Conversely, individuals with lower levels of physical activity and disrupted sleep patterns exhibited independent associations with a gradual decline in cognitive performance over time. Additionally, sleeping less than six hours per night was linked to an accelerated rate of cognitive decline.
The most physically active cohort in the study consisted of individuals who were initially younger and leaner, married or in partnerships, less inclined to smoke or drink, and had lower instances of chronic depression or illness. Furthermore, this group possessed higher levels of education and greater wealth compared to the least active segment.
Despite these advantageous factors, highly active individuals in their 50s and 60s who averaged less than six hours of sleep per night forfeited the benefits derived from regular exercise after a decade. They experienced a more notable decline, reaching cognitive levels comparable to those who did not engage in consistent physical activity.
“We were surprised to find that regular physical activity may not always be sufficient to counter the long-term effects of insufficient sleep on cognitive health,” commented Bloomberg.
Additionally, individuals in their 50s and 60s who were physically active but had inadequate sleep experienced an expedited cognitive decline compared to those with better sleep patterns. However, this pattern was observed only up to a certain age. In individuals aged 70 and older, the cognitive benefits of exercise on the brain persisted despite shortened sleep.
“By age 70 years, the cognitive benefit associated with higher physical activity was maintained over the 10-year follow-up period,” the authors noted, providing no specific explanation for this intriguing observation.
“The findings highlight the significance of considering physical activity and sleep together, as these factors may interact in complex ways to shape cognitive trajectories from age 50 years onwards,” the authors concluded.
For many individuals, inadequate sleep—defined as less than six hours per night—poses risks beyond cognitive impairment. Short sleepers confront a fivefold increased risk of stroke, and when combined with other prevalent conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, the risk of heart disease and mortality can double.
If you intentionally choose to compromise on optimal sleep, it may be worthwhile to reassess that decision. For those contending with insomnia, sleep apnea, or other sleep disorders, seeking guidance from a sleep specialist is crucial. In the meantime, adopting healthy sleep habits may provide some relief.
Maintain a cool temperature in the bedroom, ideally between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal sleep. Designate the bedroom for sleep only; refrain from activities like watching TV or working, aiming to establish a mental association of the room solely with rest.
Eliminate all sources of light, including the blue light emitted by mobile phones or laptops, as they can signal your body to stay awake.
Reconsider consuming coffee in the afternoon and that nightcap, as using alcohol to induce sleep often results in waking up after a few hours, leading to poor-quality sleep upon returning to bed.
Experts emphasize the significance of establishing and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. Train your brain to initiate sleep at a specific hour and wake up at a dedicated time every day, including weekends.
The golden rule of sleep is to refrain from lying in bed without sleeping. If you don’t fall asleep within 15 to 20 minutes of lying down, get up and relocate to another dimly lit room. Resist the temptation to turn on the television or use your phone or laptop; instead, engage in a mindless activity like folding laundry. Once you feel sleepy, return to bed.
Most importantly, avoid worrying—stress does not promote sleep. Persist in training your brain, and it will respond with the restful sleep you need.