We are in a historic moment with the Covid-19 pandemic ravaging the entire world. Many people have a number of things to think about and worry about, and it can affect their sleep. It’s bad enough in normal times but in this pandemic, the number of things people need to worry about has increased dramatically. The resulting lack of sleep has a major effect not only on a person’s mood but also on physical health. This is particularly concerning to people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) like us because it has a direct impact on our brain health.
Our brains deteriorates with age. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a study to see if age-related changes in sleep and brain structure are linked to impaired memory. As reported in their study, deep sleep helps memory while a lack of deep sleep has detrimental effects on memory.
Even more alarmingly, lack of sleep results in the accumulation of amyloid beta protein in the brain. Amyloid beta is crucially involved in Alzheimer’s disease as the main component of the amyloid plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The reason why sleep is so important for the health of the brain is because the brain clears amyloid beta buildup during this time. Even after one night of sleep deprivation, excess amyloid beta can accumulate in the brain as proven in this study, an observation that was also confirmed in another study.
So… the question is what can we do about it?
The first thing we can do is to start monitoring our sleep. Of course, you can just keep a record of the time you go to sleep and the time you get up. But, there are some other methods you could use to make monitoring easier. In particular, there are many sleep apps available on smart phones, many of which are free. Some others use additional devices such as dedicated wrist bands or even pads to put under the mattress. This website provides a good description of apps and devices available in 2020.
While you could go out and spend hundreds of dollars on one of those devices, it is probably best to start out with something like the Sleep Score app on your smartphone, which is available free of charge. All you have to do is to put the smartphone beside the bed and let it monitor your movements. It provides a lot of details about your sleep. However, unlike wearable devices, this app does not measure heartbeat, so I am not sure how accurate the readings are. Still, I have found that it does seem to reflect how I feel about my sleep, so I think it’s good enough for me.
Some people say keeping track of sleep could make them anxious, resulting in poorer sleep. However, if you use it only as a guide to help you identify things affecting your sleep, it could help improve your sleep.
One thing we need to keep in mind is that a sleep score is only a piece of information and will not automatically improve your sleep. Dr. Roy Raymann, vice president of sleep science and scientific affairs at SleepScore Labs made an analogy to a bathroom scale: “If you stand on it every day, it will not make you lose weight.”
So, what will help you to have a good night sleep? It is a loaded question. If you google this subject, you will find thousands of websites discussing it. So, for now, I will just quote from a CDC (Center for Disease and Prevention) page and add a few items which were not included.
- Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends
- Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature
- Remove electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smartphones, from the bedroom
- Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime
- Get some exercise. Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night.
- Make sure that your mattress is the right one for you. You don’t want to be tossing and turning at night.
- Try white noise. It helps some people.
- Journaling; write down things that are heavy on your mind. Sometimes this helps to keep them off your mind while asleep.
You might also like to read another good article on this subject by Harvard Medical School. It describes various strategies in a more in-depth manner.
Following this advice should help some people sleep better; however many people may follow these tips and still have trouble getting a good night’s sleep. Therefore, I will explore other strategies in a future post.
In the meantime, you might like to start monitoring your sleep pattern as described above and see if some of those strategies could work for you.