It is likely that at some point, most of us have experienced a sleepless night. When sleep is cut short, the body is unable to complete all the steps necessary to repair muscles, consolidate memory and release hormones that regulate growth and appetite. But according to a new study published in the journal Neurology, sleep difficulties may be linked to faster brain volume decline.

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People who consistently have shortened sleep may be at risk for faster brain volume decline, according to the latest study.

A recent study suggested that shortened sleep speeds up the aging of the brain in older people. Researchers from that study – published in the journal Sleep – found that for every hour of reduced sleep in the participants, there was an incremental expansion of the brain ventricles and a decline in global cognitive performance.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleeping too little can inhibit productivity and affect our ability to remember and consolidate information.

However, lack of sleep is also linked to:

  • Increase in body mass index (BMI)
  • Increased risk of diabetes and heart problems
  • Increased risk for psychiatric conditions, such as depression and substance abuse
  • Decreased attention span, ability to react to signals or remember new information.

To further investigate the link between sleep deficits and brain volume, the researchers from this latest study analyzed 147 participants, who were between the ages of 20-84 years old.

At around 3.5-year intervals, the researchers performed two MRI brain scans on the study participants, all of whom completed sleep habit questionnaires.

The assessment determined how long the participants slept, how long it took to fall asleep at night, and sleeping medication use, among other factors. In total, 35% of the participants fell under the “poor sleep quality” category, with an average score of 8.5 points out of 21.

Results showed that those who had sleep difficulties during the study period also had a more rapid decline in brain volume in widespread regions, such as the frontal, temporal and parietal areas, with effects more evident in those over the age of 60.

Commenting on their findings, study author Claire E. Sexton, from the University of Oxford in the UK, says:

It is not yet known whether poor sleep quality is a cause or consequence of changes in brain structure. 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.”

Though sometimes improving sleep habits is easier said than done, the National Sleep Foundation provide a number of sleep tips, including:

  • Establishing consistent sleep/wake schedules
  • Creating a regular, relaxing bedtime routine
  • Establishing a dark, quiet and comfortable sleep environment
  • Sleeping on a comfortable mattress and pillows
  • Using the bedroom only for sleep and sex, not for watching TV or using a computer
  • Exercising regularly
  • Avoiding caffeine/alcohol close to bedtime.

Speaking with Medical News Today about future studies, Sexton said she and her team “would like to investigate whether improving sleep (for example, through cognitive behavioral therapy, physical exercise or pharmacological treatments) can help slow decline in brain volumes.”

She added that “if improving sleep is shown to slow the rate of decline in brain volumes, this would indicate that sleep is directly beneficial to the brain, and potentially an important way to improve brain health.”

MNT recently reported on a study that provided physical evidence to support the theory that sleep strengthens new memories after learning.