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Is Lack of Sleep Causing Your Brain to Shrivel?

Posted Feb 15 2013 12:00am

Snore a lot? Get up frequently at night to urinate? Wake up at 2 A.M. with bright ideas or worries? All these disruptions of sleep are common and more so as we get older. Does it matter? Well, of course such awakenings disrupt our sleep, and maybe it is just inconvenient. But disrupted sleep not only is more likely with age, it may promote deterioration in mental functioning. A recent study compared the effects of sleeping behavior in young adults and seniors. The study involved assessing the memory after sleeping of 18 young adults in their 20s and 15 older adults in their 70s. The subjects were tested on 120 word sets before they went to bed, and an EEG machine monitored their brain activity while they slept. Upon awakening, they were tested once again on the word pairs, but this time they took the tests while undergoing functional  magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.
The quality of deep sleep among the older adults was 75 percent lower than the younger ones, and their memory was significantly worse the next day−55 percent worse. The scans suggested deterioration of the frontal lobe. Shrunken brains can occur from aging and shrunken brains impair thinking and memory. But is it possible we have the cause and the effect backwards. Maybe what happens in the environment, such as impaired sleeping, causes both the shrunken brain and the impaired memory. Or in other words, what causes older brains to shrink?
Scientists consider a decrease of about 2% shrinkage every 10 years as normal. That may not be normal, just what most people experience because they are not taking care of their brains. There is abundant research that shows that exercises for both the brain and body help to reduce brain atrophy. Of course, anything that damages neurons can reduce the number of their tree-like processes and the density of their contact points with other neurons. The list of such causes is long, including: alcohol abuse, brain inflammation, certain infections, concussion, impaired blood supply, lack of intellectual stimulus, vitamin B12 deficiency. It now appears that we should add fragmented sleep to the list. Common natural causes of fragmented sleep in older humans are alcohol abuse and sleep apnea. Also, in males, enlarged prostate causes a need for frequent urination. As I have explained in my learning and memory blog posts (, learning events during the day are consolidated into lasting form during the sleep at night of the same day. We don’t know exactly how sleep helps, but obviously, you have far fewer mental distractions during sleep — unless, of course you keep waking up. Alzheimer’s Disease also causes fragmented sleep. So, it is no surprise that the brain degeneration by the disease would cause memory problems. But maybe, just maybe, it is the fragmented sleep that accelerates onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Now, this seemingly ridiculous possibility has to be taken seriously in light of new research showing that sleep-disordered breathing, as in sleep apnea, seems to increase the risk of mental decline and even dementia in older women. Disrupted sleep may also accelerate normal aging. This is certainly true when the cause is sleep apnea, which raises blood pressure and increases the cardiovascular damage that high blood pressure causes. Blood clotting is promoted, increasing the likelihood of strokes. Obesity and diabetes are often associated with sleep apnea, and it seems that sleep apnea not only results from obesity but can promote obesity and the diabetes that often accompanies obesity. Diabetes is toxic for nerve terminals. Similar neuropathy may also be occurring in their brain. Sleep apnea causes daytime sleepiness, and that it turn reduces attentiveness and mental activity, which when sustained over many years reduces the mental stimulus and promotes atrophy of neuronal processes. Obviously, blood oxygen drops during sleep apnea. Normally, blood is 94% to 98% saturated with oxygen. But not breathing for 30 seconds or more during sleep causes oxygen level to drop to 80% or less. Any level below 90% oxygen level is dangerous, especially to the brain which demands nearly 20% of all the body’s oxygen supply. The adult brain can only survive about four minutes once oxygen is completely cut off. So it is entirely possible that the slipping memory we see in so many elderly is a warning sign of something much more serious. But by the time the memory deficits show up, much of the damage has already been done. Prevention is the best hope.


Mander, B. A., Rao, V.,  Brandon, B. L., Saletin, J. M.,  et al. (2013). Prefrontal atrophy, disrupted NREM slow waves and impaired hippocampal-dependent memory in aging. Nature Neuroscience  doi:10.1038/nn.3324 

Yaffe, K., Laffan, A. M., Harrison, S. L. et al. (2011). Sleep-disordered breathing, hyupoxia, and risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in older women. JAMA. 306 (6), 613-619. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.1115

For those who want to learn more about the brain, Dr. Klemm has just released the second edition of his e-book, “Core Ideas in Neuroscience.” See
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