January 31, 2017

A new report, issued on Jan. 10 by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH),  recommends seven to eight hours of sleep each day as a way to maintain brain health, even as one ages.

Established in 2015, the GCBH is an independent, international collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts who work in areas of brain health related to human cognition. The collaborative is convened by AARP, with support from Age UK.

Dr. Peggye Dilworth-Anderson

Dr. Peggye Dilworth-Anderson

“This report reflects the collaboration of the GCBH with leading scientists and experts around the world on sleep and brain health,” said Peggye Dilworth-Anderson, PhD, professor of health policy and management at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and GCBH committee member. “It aims to educate policy makers, caregivers, the general public and others about the importance of sleep, brain health and cognitive functioning.”

A recent AARP consumer survey  found that 99 percent of adults ages 50 and older believe that sleep is important for their brain health. However, only about four in 10 (43 percent) report getting enough sleep. More than half of adults (54 percent) say they wake up too early in the morning and are unable to go back to sleep.

The new recommendations cover a wide range of sleep-related issues, including common factors that can disrupt sleep, symptoms of potential sleep disorders, and prescription medications and over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids. A host of helpful expert tips also are included in the report, such as ways to aid falling asleep or staying asleep, when to seek professional help for a possible sleep disorder, and the pros and cons of napping.

Based on the scientific evidence, the GCBH made the following consensus statements:

  • Sleep is vital to brain health, including cognitive function. Sleeping on average 7-8 hours each day is related to better brain and physical health in older people.
  • The sleep-wake cycle is influenced by many factors. A regular sleep-wake schedule is related to better sleep and better brain health.
  • Regular exposure to light and physical activity supports good sleep.
  • People, at any age, can change their behavior to improve their sleep.
  • Persistent, excessive daytime sleepiness is not a normal part of aging.
  • Sleep disorders become more common with age but often can be treated successfully.
  • People with chronic inadequate sleep are at higher risk for and experience more severe health problems, including dementia, depression, heart disease, obesity and cancer.

The following are some of the tips included in the report:

  • Get up at the same time every day, seven days a week.
  • Restrict fluids and food three hours before going to bed to help avoid disrupting your sleep to use the bathroom.
  • Avoid using OTC medications for sleep, as these can have negative side-effects, including disrupted sleep quality and impaired cognitive functioning.
  • Dietary supplements such as melatonin may have benefits for some people, but scientific evidence on their effectiveness is inconclusive. Be particularly cautious of melatonin use with dementia patients.
  • Avoid long naps. If you must nap, limit sleep to 30 minutes in the early afternoon.

“Although sleep problems are a huge issue with older adults, it’s unfortunate the importance of sleep is often not taken seriously by health care professionals,” said Sarah Lock, AARP senior vice president for policy and GCBH executive director. “It’s normal for sleep to change as we age, but poor-quality sleep is not normal. Our experts share the steps people can take to help maintain their brain health through better sleep habits.”

The full GCBH recommendations can be found here.

The 2016 AARP Sleep and Brain Health Survey can be found here.

Note: Dilworth-Anderson, former president of the Gerontological Society of America (2009) and winner of the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Award in Alzheimer’s Research (2010), is an internationally recognized expert on issues related to aging, including care giving to people with dementia, minority aging and health, and chronic disease care and management in cultural context. She focuses on aging and memory issues as part of the research collaborative efforts  between UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the University of Cambridge (U.K.)


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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