A new study using brain imaging has discovered that burning the candle at both ends could send us into premature aging.

Brain shrinkage is a normal part of the aging process but the study, which was led by Dr. June Lo, a researcher with Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore, indicated that these changes were exacerbated with every hour of sleep lost per night.

Dr. Lo and her team examined data from the sleep patterns of 66 Chinese adults who were all over 55 years of age. Prior to taking part in the research project, the subjects had all undergone magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure brain volume in specific areas and had taken tests to assess their cognitive skills.

“Among older adults, sleeping less will increase the rate their brain ages and speed up the decline in their cognitive functions,” reported Dr. Lo. “Our lab has also shown repeatedly in the past decade that in young adults, brain and cognitive functions are affected when people do not have enough sleep,” she told Reuters Health in an email. “As a result, we wanted to know whether sleeping less would affect brain and cognitive aging in older adults.”

Previous research has confirmed the effects of sleep loss on cognitive skills and memory across all age ranges, but studies have not generally been focused on the physical effects of insomnia or sleep deprivation in the elderly. This latest study, published in the journal "Sleep", assessed the effects of sleep duration on thought processes and brain structure using subjects who were also being monitored as part of the Singapore Longitudinal Aging Brain Study. Using a combination of questionnaires and blood tests, the researchers were able to collate information on the participants’ sleep quality, sleep duration, and blood levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein. After two years, it became evident from the data collected that those subjects who slept less had higher levels of brain shrinkage and much greater declines in cognitive function.

Inflammatory markers were assessed as previous studies had shown that sleep deprivation increases inflammation, but this latest study suggested that the negative impacts arose from other explanations, as Lo and her colleagues found no links between inflammation and sleep duration or cognitive decline, and neither did sleep quality appear to be a factor.

“Some have proposed that sleep loss increases inflammation which has a negative impact on the brain, but our own data do not support this view,” said Dr. Lo. “Alternatively, short sleep is associated with other medical conditions which may accelerate brain aging."

The study was relatively small and it was not possible to determine the specific cause of the brain changes, or whether they were directly linked to sleep deprivation; there could have been other factors that were influencing the results and these would have to be thoroughly investigated before the results were proved to be conclusive.
The results were convincing enough to attract attention from other experts in the field, however, and several theories to explain possible mechanisms have been put forward.

Dr. William Kohle, medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute, proposed that the results may revolve around the subject of effective brain detoxification, as studies on mice have suggested that waste materials are removed from the brain during periods of sleep.

“If one of the purposes of sleep is to remove toxic products, then if those products aren’t removed because you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re going to be more likely to develop cognitive problems and degeneration later on,” he said.

Whatever the mechanism at work in the latest study, all studies indicate that getting enough sleep is crucial for good health, as this is when vital physiological functions such as cell repair and memory consolidation take place.

“Many people think that sleep is something you can sacrifice if you have work to do, a game to watch, etc.,” Lo said. “Therefore, insufficient sleep is so common that CDC has announced this as a public health epidemic. Knowing that there are negative health consequences of sleep loss may motivate some to sleep more.”

Perhaps during our unconscious sleep hours the brain does far more than just physically repair its cells; this detachment from the conscious world could also be crucial for our spiritual well-being.
Sleep is regarded by some as a portal to the dream state, the gateway that bridges the gap between the physical and spiritual world. Is this when our brains become connected to the powerful unconscious, to the earth energies that subtly effect our whole being in ways that we only barely understand? Is it during this sleep time that our "minds" are formed and developed?

Perhaps sleep is the point at which the collective mind more readily emerges into the human experience……

You won’t need to be asleep to access the latest Dreamland interview here on Unknown Country, where guest Carl Calleman discusses thought-provoking theories about how the mind uses the brain, and what the mind actually is – not an artifact of the brain at all, but a part of the Earth itself that uses the human brain, but is not dependent on it.

Subscribe today for unlimited access to this and many more fascinating interviews.

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