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Remember to sleep? Or sleep to remember?
(No. 134) Steps you can take to help sleep stave off dementia.
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I’m drawn to the dark stuff that can happen as a person ages, as anyone who has read a few of my newsletters would know. Just the other day someone told me I write about death quite a lot. I hadn’t been aware of that, but on reflection realized it was true. I feel I’m less morbid than realistic — you know, we all gotta go someday. It’s an interesting fact — perhaps the most unknowable known in all of our lives.
I also spend a lot of time thinking about dementia. I haven’t been around that many people who suffered from it, but from what I’ve seen it is a disruptive, often frightening condition for the sufferer and all those around her (women are more at risk for Alzheimer’s than men). I think you all might be interested in research suggesting that the washing of our brains that occurs during deep sleep has a huge effect on whether or not you get Alzheimer’s — and also on how well you cope once you have it.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly seven million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s. One in nine people over 65 have it. Most are over age 75. The US will need over a million new caregivers to help with the explosion in this disease in the next ten years. Seems like a good idea to do everything we can to prevent it.
Education, exercise and movement, friendships and now sleep are key factors in preventing the memory scourge. A group of researchers from Berkeley, Stanford and UC Irvine recently found that people with the brain changes seen in Alzheimer’s patients do better on memory tests when they get better and more deep sleep.
Deep sleep generally occurs earlier in the sleep cycle, though that’s not always the case. Also known as slow-wave sleep, its when your brain is repaired, restored and washed, in a way. It’s also when your muscles and other parts of your body are rejuvenated.
During this sleep cycle, your heart rate and breathing slow to their lowest rate, and your muscles take a relaxing break. The electrical activity in your brain diminishes. Most adults pass about 13-25 percent of their sleep in this stage, though that diminishes with age. On good nights I get 45-75 minutes of deep sleep, out of seven hours (that’s on a good night — other nights I might get only 15 minutes out of 5 hours of sleep, which is clearly not enough).
There are many devices and apps that track sleep. I use the Oura ring. It functions well, and the data has helped me examine my sleep habits and improve them. However, any tracking device can have a significant downside: If you are sleeping poorly, it will tell you, and you might kind of hate yourself or feel like a failure.
When I got my first ring, a few years ago, the data showed I had very poor sleep. So I set out to fix that. I bought an expensive mattress, made the old fashioned way, in a factory in the Bronx where they build the mattresses with horse hair just as they did a century ago. I got a box spring and a lambs wool pillow topper too (it’s supposed to keep you cool). I put up better window shades, though they aren’t blackout shades. I turned on the ceiling fan to help keep me cool. I quit drinking coffee after about 11 am. All this helped.
Yet, by far the most impactful action I took was to try to head to bed at roughly the same time each night. For me, that’s between 10 and 11 pm, which let’s me sneak in 6 or 7 hours before the sunrise inevitably wakes me up. Five out of seven nights these practices help.
I feel more rested, most of the time. And maybe I’m staving off dementia.
Oh, and I forgot (is that a sign of memory loss?): I find that vigorous exercise during the day has an amazingly positive effect on my sleep. Running for half an hour, in particular, is an effective sleep aid.
The study was published in BMC Medicine.
The other day I got a call out of the blue from an acquaintance I hadn’t seen since we were together in graduate school a few years ago. It was such a delight to be invited to coffee and talk, and get to know her a bit, and get her perspective on the world. That same week, another old friend from LA reached out — we hadn’t spoken in a couple of years. Again, a delight. I try to say yes to any social invitation these days, to pull me out of my entrenched pandemic mindset, and also to just improve my life. I encourage you to do the same. People are wonderful, really.
Over at Everlands, my newsletter that features serialized fiction and nonfiction, and essays about the writer’s life, I have a new post about how I became a ghost writer. Check it out and subscribe if you’re at all interested in how the system works that anonymously produces over half the titles on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list each week.