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Sleep Awareness Week encourages better sleep for older Australians

When you start to forget things or your memory isn’t quite like used to be, older Australians are quick to blame their age rather than the real reason for their forgetfulness, which sleep experts warn could be a lot closer to home.

Sleep Awareness Week draws attention to the conclusive link between sleep and memory, and the fact that sleep helps reduce the risk of developing dementia. [Source: Shutterstock]

The Sleep Health Foundation are raising their concerns about older Australians and their sleeping habits for Sleep Awareness Week, 5-8 August, and the importance of having a good night’s sleep.

Sleep Awareness Week draws attention to the conclusive link between sleep and memory, and the fact that sleep helps with learning and information retention.

Many people don’t understand how much their sleep affects their daily functioning, particularly their memory and mood, but also the long term implications of poor sleep, which can include the development of dementia.

Research has found links between poor sleep and the development of dementia, as well as sleep disturbance increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Melinda Jackson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Monash University’s School of Psychological Sciences and the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, Sleep and Circadian Rhythms, says that sleep is incredibly important to a person’s physical and mental wellbeing, but it can be difficult with sleeping patterns changing over time.

“The depth of our sleep and quality of our sleep can change as we age. We find that older people tend to have a lot lighter sleep and more frequent awakenings during the night, and they have less slow-wave sleep, that deep sleep that we typically see during our 20s and 30s,” says Dr Jackson.

“We are doing [research] looking at the relationship between sleep and dementia. We know that people with Alzheimer's disease do have changes in their sleep. Even in mild cognitive impairment when they get dementia, we see these patients have more awakenings, more insomnia symptoms, they might have circadian disruption as well. 

“What our studies are looking at is how obstructive sleep apnea may be related to Alzheimer's disease… In that sense, sleep is important for everyone in terms of memory consolidation and just rejuvenating the brain.”

Dr Jackson says the current research around sleep and dementia is a “chicken and the egg” debate on whether the sleep is driving the changes in the brain and the protein build-up which causes results like dementia, or whether the neurodegeneration is happening in the brain anyway and is affecting the sleep-related centres of the brain. 

Conditions like sleep apnea and other breathing sleeping disorders affect a third of people over 65, with many older Australians not aware they have the problem because the lack of oxygen to the brain is only causing “microarousals” and they have very fragmented sleep as a consequence.

Dr Jackson encourages people to take cognitive and behavioural approaches to improving their sleep rather than through pharmacotherapies (taking medication) to quickly fix the problem.

The Sleep Health Foundation is using Sleep Awareness Week to highlight the need for people to prioritise sleep as best they can to improve their memory retention and productivity.

Professor Dorothy Bruck, Sleep Health Foundation Chair, says, “It’s very common to hear people pass off their forgetfulness and their fogginess as the result of getting old.

“What many fail to recognise is that sleep, or lack of it, is playing a pivotal role in memory and mood. Age is a factor too, but improve your sleep and you’ll be surprised at the brain boost that follows.”

Research suggests four out of ten Australians don’t get sufficient sleep either daily or several days a week.

It also suggests a lack of sleep affects mood, energy levels, productivity, weight, and the likelihood of developing serious health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

“Firstly, sleep helps to prepare our brain for learning new things. When we are well-rested, we can pay better attention to new information that we come across in our daily experiences,” explains Professor Bruck. 

“Secondly, sleep helps make new information ‘stick’. During sleep, the brain replays memories from the day, making the neural connections stronger. This process of memory consolidations is essential to remember the things we experienced when we were awake.

“Sleep also plays an important role in creativity, helping us find new solutions to problems by looking at things in a new way while we sleep. You may have heard people say they will ‘sleep on it’ in order to solve a problem or make a decision. The process of sleep will often enable a better solution.”

A guideline of seven to eight hours sleep per night is recommended, as many people try to get by on fewer hours.

To improve your sleeping habits, make sure you go to bed in a quiet room with a relaxed mind and a comfortable bed.

The Sleep Health Foundation also says people should avoid caffeine after midday, and start winding down an hour before bed by removing technology or blue light exposure.

“You'd be surprised how many people ignore these important guidelines and snuggle up with their iPhone in their overheated bedroom after drinking too many glasses of wine," Professor Bruck says.


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