HealthSleep: Here’s how much you really need for optimal...

Sleep: Here’s how much you really need for optimal cognition and well-being – new research



Most of us struggle to think well after a poor night’s sleep – feeling foggy and failing to perform at our usual standard at school, university or work.

You may notice that you’re not concentrating or that your memory doesn’t seem up to scratch. Decades of insufficient sleep, however, may potentially lead to cognitive decline.

Lousy sleep also affects people’s moods and behaviour, whether they are young infants or older adults. So how much sleep does our brain need to operate correctly in the long term? Our new research study, published in Nature Aging, provides an answer.

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Sleep is an essential component of maintaining normal brain functioning. The brain reorganises and recharges itself during sleep. As well as removing toxic waste byproducts and boosting our immune system, sleep is also crucial for “memory consolidation”, during which new memory segments based on our experiences are transferred into long-term memory.

An optimal quantity and quality of sleep enable us to have more energy and better well-being. It also allows us to develop our creativity and thinking.

When looking at babies three to 12 months of age, researchers have noted that better sleep is associated with better behavioural outcomes in the first year of life, such as adapting to new situations or regulating emotions efficiently.


These are essential early building blocks for cognition, including “cognitive flexibility” (our ability to shift perspective quickly), and are linked to later life well-being.
Sleep regularity seems to be linked to the brain’s “default mode network” (DMN), which involves active regions when we are awake but not engaged in a specific task, such as resting while our mind wanders. This network includes areas that are important for cognitive function, such as the posterior cingulate cortex (which deactivates during cognitive tasks), parietal lobes (which process sensory information) and the frontal cortex (involved in planning and complex cognition).

There are signs that poor sleep may be associated with changes in connectivity within this network in adolescents and young adults. This is important as our brains are still developing into late adolescence and early young adulthood.

Disruption in this network may have knock-on effects on cognition, such as interfering with concentration and memory-based processing and more advanced cognitive processing.

Alterations in sleep patterns, including difficulty falling and staying asleep, are significant characteristics of the ageing process. These sleep disturbances are highly plausible candidate contributors to older people’s cognitive decline and psychiatric disorders.
Our study aimed to understand better the link between sleep, cognition, and well-being. We found that insufficient and excessive sleep contributed to the impaired cognitive performance of a middle-aged to the ageing population of nearly 500,000 adults from the UK BioBank. However, we did not study children and adolescents, and since their brains are in development, they may have different requirements for optimal sleep duration.

Our key finding was that seven hours of sleep per night was optimal, with more or less than that bringing fewer benefits for cognition and mental health. We found that people who slept that amount performed – on average – better on cognitive tests (including processing speed, visual attention and memory) than those who slept less or more. Individuals also need seven hours of sleep consistently, without too much fluctuation in duration.
That said, we all respond slightly differently to a lack of sleep. We discovered that genetics and brain structure mediated the relationship between sleep duration, cognition, and mental health. We noted that the brain regions most affected by sleep deprivation include the hippocampus, well known for its role in learning and memory, and frontal cortex areas, involved in top-down control of emotion.

But although sleep may affect our brains, it could also work the other way around. It might be that age-related shrinkage of brain regions involved in sleep regulation and wakefulness contributes to sleep problems in later life. It may, for example, decrease the production and secretion of melatonin, a hormone that helps control the sleep cycle, in older adults. This finding supports other evidence suggesting there is a link between sleep duration and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

While seven hours of sleep is optimal for protecting against dementia, our study suggests that getting enough sleep can also help alleviate the symptoms of dementia by protecting memory. This highlights the importance of monitoring sleep duration in older patients with psychiatric disorders and dementia to improve their cognitive functioning, mental health and well-being.

So what can we do to improve our sleep for optimal cognition and well-being in our daily lives? A good start is ensuring that the temperature and ventilation in your bedroom are suitable – it should be calm and airy. You should also avoid too much alcohol and watching thrillers or other exciting content before bed. Ideally, you should be clear and relaxed when trying to fall asleep. Thinking about something pleasant and relaxing, such as the last time you were on the beach, works for many people.
Technological solutions such as apps or wearable devices can also be beneficial for mental health, track sleep, and ensure consistency of sleep duration.

To enjoy life and function optimally in everyday life, you may want to monitor your sleep patterns to ensure that you are regularly getting seven hours of sleep.

fatima khan
fatima khan
A brand new writer in the fields, Fatima has been taken under my electric spark's RGB- rich and ensures she doesn't engage in excessive snark on the website. It's unclear what command and Conquer are; however, she can talk for hours about the odd rhythm games, hardware, product reviews, and MMOs that were popular in the 2000s. Fatima has been creating various announcements, previews, and other content while here, but particularly enjoys writing regarding Products' latest news in the market she's currently addicted to. She is likely talking to an additional blogger with her current obsession right now.


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