Healthy Aging

Fun for the Brain: How Sleeping Keeps Gray Matter Sharp

Our brains need exercise as much as our bodies do in order to stay healthy.  In this Fun for the Brain series, we’ve discussed dancing (click here), playing computer games (click here) and smiling (click here) – all enjoyable ways to maintain brain function such as memory, perception, learning and creativity as we age. But sleep? How is that an activity?


What Our Brains Do While We Sleep


For many years, people believed that our brains sleep when we do, but research has proven that assumption to be false. In fact, our brains are busy recharging while we sleep.

Both animal and human studies suggest that the quantity and quality of our sleep determine how well we learn and how much we remember. (Click here to read about the research.)

A sleep-deprived person can’t focus attention during learning. Studies have found that people who slept after learning a new task did better on tests later on. Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through memory consolidation.

Sleep itself plays a role in three types of memory – procedural (how to do something), declarative (remembering details and key information) and episodic (remembering events from your own life).  Sleep-deprivation experiments have shown that a tired brain has a difficult time capturing all three types.

There seems to be no “magic number” when it comes to how much sleep we need.

National Sleep Foundation experts recommend a range of seven to nine hours of sleep for the average adult. While sleep patterns change as we age, the amount of sleep we need generally does not.


Technology To Help You Sleep Like a Baby

If seven to nine hours of quality sleep seems like a challenge, these iPad apps might help you get your Zs:

Sleep Pillow Sounds

Especially in the city, sounds from the street or from neighbors – or even the creaking of an old house – can inhibit or interrupt sleep. White Noise – any sound like lapping water, breezes brushing leaves or even gentle abstract sound – can mask the noises and help us drop off and stay asleep.

  • The White Noise Machine Lite (free) turns your iPad into an ambient sound machine, premixed for sleep enhancement. Upgrade for more options for $1.99.
  • White Noise Ambience HD Lite (free) is also known as “the nap app.”  Upgrade for more options for $2.99.

Sleep cycle trackers

If you wake up during the night (and especially if you have a hard time getting back to sleep), consider using a sleep tracker. By monitoring your movements, these apps can log your deep and light cycles as well as times when you actually wake up; if you look at your log for a series of days, chances are you’ll see a pattern that might alert you to why you sometimes wake up feeling as if you’ve hardy slept. (You watched TV late on Monday and Wednesday?)

  • Smart Alarm Clock HD: Sleep Cycles and Noise Recording (free) tracks your sleep cycles and awakens you at the best moment, based on sleep phases and biological rhythms. Upgrade for more options for 99¢.
  • Sleep Cycle: Same idea as Smart Alarm Clock HD. It’s easy to use and lets you set a gentle alarm sound with a name like “warm breeze” or forest glade’ – or, if you prefer, “urban call.”

If you’re a Pinterest user, click here for a page filled with ideas on how to improve your sleep.

Wishing you sweet dreams . . . and a sharper brain!

What are your favorite tips for getting a good night’s sleep?  Please share them in the comments below.



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