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Sleep Loss can Shrink Your Brain

Sep 04, 2014 03:25 AM EDT
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A new study suggests that poor quality sleep can lead to loss of brain volume.

As we get older, our brain volume changes. According to researchers at the University of Oxford and colleagues, disturbed sleep can impair cognitive abilities by accelerating brain shrinkage.

Previous research has already shown that older adults face sleeping difficulties as their brains lose a critical type of neurons that regulate sleep. The latest study, too, shows that people who sleep less have higher rates of brain volume loss.

"It is not yet known whether poor sleep quality is a cause or consequence of changes in brain structure," said Claire E. Sexton, DPhil, with the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, lead author of the study.

The study was conducted on 147 adults aged between 20-84 years. The participants answered questionnaires about their sleeping habits and also underwent two brain scans. The MRI scans were taken at an average of 3.5 years apart.

The researchers found that around 35 percent of the participants suffer from poor sleep quality. These people were more likely to register a more rapid decline in brain volume than other people in the study.

The study is published in the journal Neurology.

Heart disease, obesity and diabetes have all been linked to low sleep quality. The research has shown that failing to fall asleep at night can lead to substantial changes at a genetic level, affecting several biological mechanisms.

"There are effective treatments for sleep problems, so future research needs to test whether improving people's quality of sleep could slow the rate of brain volume loss. If that is the case, improving people's sleep habits could be an important way to improve brain health," Sexton said in a news release.

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