To Sleep or not to Sleep?

June 28, 2023

In 1963, as the Beach Boys were playing on the radio and Christmas was approaching, two California schoolboys threw a coin. They were deciding who would be the guinea pig in a school science project they had designed – to beat the world record for staying awake. The lucky ‘winner’ was Randy Gardner, a 16 year-old from San Diego. He stayed awake for 11 days and 25 minutes and still holds the world record. It is unlikely to be broken as the Guinness Book of Records will no longer accept entries. It is much too dangerous for the brain.

Now some 60 years later, we know just how dangerous it is. Loss of sleep is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and even some cancers. And, for those of us who care about our brain, it is also related to poor mental health and an increased risk of dementia.

In Japan, sleep duration has decreased by about one hour in the last 50 years. In the USA, about 30% of people sleep for less than 6 hours, compared to 9 hours for most people a century ago. And, we Brits are the most sleep deprived nation in Europe. It’s almost as if modern life is one ghastly sleep deprivation experiment – work demands, shift work, constant movement and travel, blue light from screens of all types, media 24/7, constant eating and snacking, chaotic and erratic lifestyles and leisure activities at all hours of the day and night. It is appalling to think that our ancient and sacred biological rhythms, 1.5 million years in the making and essential to our health and wellbeing are being remorselessly savaged on a daily basis.

What then, are we to do? Though individual differences are enormous, scientists are in agreement: the average adult needs 7-8 hours of sleep, not per night but over a 24-hour period. This is because our sleep patterns change as we age. As we get older, we take longer to get to sleep. We have shallower sleep rhythms. We come out of sleep more easily and take longer to get back to sleep.

Now for some great news: if we are only sleeping 5-6 hours per night, the sleep deficit can be made up by day-time napping. However, there is a catch. We should not nap for more than 40 minutes – if we do, we reduce the sleep drive so that when bedtime comes, we are awake and our nighttime sleep suffers, driving us into more out-of-sync daytime sleep. Recent research has shown that short napping is associated with less brain ageing and ergo, less risk of cognitive decline.

But is it sleep quantity or sleep quality that matters? It turns out that there’s no adequate objective measure of sleep quality. It is defined by how we say we feel after a night’s sleep. But the quality of our sleep is now recognised as more important than its quantity. There is no silver bullet to reduce our risk of cognitive decline or dementia, but, if you were to ask me about the importance of good quality sleep, I would say it is in my “top three lifestyle pillars”.

Read more about our key pillars here on our website at Brain Health Network or by signing-up and downloading your FREE Brain Health Method eBook.