S2E40. Going Back To Sleep

It was just 9 weeks ago that I posted a blog about sleep (S2E31. Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This) in which I described my lifetime relationship with sleeping and napping.

I thought I had said all I needed to say about sleep’s importance as one of the five pillars of preserving brain health, but The Universe seemed to have a different idea. All of a sudden my inbox and social media feeds were full of articles about sleep and sleep hygiene…and it wasn’t even National Sleep Awareness Week!

So I played along and watched a webcast of an interview with Matt Walker, Ph.D., a sleep scientist at the University of California-Berkeley (you can watch the 1-hour event here: youtube.com/watch?v=ZaxGiYyUcyI).

A lot of the information he presented was new to me, so I read his book Why We Sleep.

WOW…was I ever impressed! It was a real page-turner! He keeps his use of jargon and scientific terminology to a bare minimum and has a knack for selecting just the right analogies to make the research he details come to life. But it’s the content he covers that is truly mind-boggling. It was humbling to discover how little I knew about sleep.

Did you know that all creatures who live more than a day sleep? Including insects and worms?

Did you know that only one side of a dolphin’s brain sleeps at a time because it has to stay awake to surface and breathe?

Did you know that just one hour of lost sleep can significantly impair your cognitive abilities and possibly even kill you? Apart from all the laboratory studies that demonstrate this, we have an unintended real-life experiment that is run every year. It turns out that the day after daylight savings time goes into effect (and we lose an hour of sleep by turning our clocks forward), there is a spike in the number of fatal heart attacks and car accidents. Conversely, when we turn our clocks back in the fall (and gain an hour of sleep), there is a corresponding drop in heart attacks and traffic accidents. 

Fascinating!

Apart from fun facts to know-and-tell, the research he described was simply amazing. He would begin by asking what happens when we sleep, then progress to how it happens, and end up answering the ultimate question: why does it happen?

For the purposes of this blog, though, the meaty part of the book involves sleep’s effects on memory.

Dr. Walker explains that the hippocampus maintains traces of your experiences each day and then, during sleep, it empties itself by sending important information out to a variety of cortical areas where it is permanently stored in the form of memories. It’s kind of like downloading the contents of a thumb drive onto your hard drive and then erasing it from the thumb drive so it has its full capacity available for the next day. One stage of sleep is responsible for transmitting the data and a different stage of sleep takes on the task of cementing it in place by strengthening the synapses where the information is stored.

If your early sleep is disturbed enough, the information won’t be transmitted and you won’t remember much the next day. If your sleep later in the night is disturbed, the newly planted memory won’t be consolidated and you won’t remember much, either.

So if you want to be able to remember more about what happened today, you’ll need a good 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep tonight…and for the next couple of days, as well.

If you don’t get good early sleep, the hippocampus won’t empty out and it will have limited storage space available the next day. That’s part of the dullness you feel when you haven’t slept well and accounts for some of the difficulty you have learning new information that day.

Unfortunately, once we get into our 60s, our sleep patterns begin to change…and not for the better. We tend to sleep fewer hours and the quality of that sleep is compromised by more awakenings…all of which wreaks havoc on our memory, immune system, emotional reactivity and judgement. 

It also compromises the nightly cleansing of the day’s chemical detritus which includes beta amyloid and tau particles, the accumulation of which are associated with Alzheimer’s pathology.

The take-home message here is that it’s not true that we need less sleep as we age. We need the same amount of sleep that we needed when we were younger to allow all of these crucial processes to be executed every night. The problem is that we don’t get the sleep we need as often as we should.

Putting all this together, it’s no surprise that getting fewer than the recommended number of hours of sleep on a regular basis is a risk factor for dementia. The relationship is so strong that researchers are now exploring whether sleep patterns can be used to predict whether or not you will develop a dementia a few years down the road.

Dr. Walker ends the book with a listing of things you can do to maximize your chances of getting the sleep you need (spoiler alert: taking sleep medication is not one of them). Here’s a link where you can review them: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/sleep/healthysleepfs.pdf

The one change I made after reading the book had to do with my computer usage. 

I’m usually on the computer right up until bedtime, but it turns out that that’s a terrible thing to do. You see, the LED screen of a computer emits strong light waves at the blue end of the spectrum. It is this wavelength of light that triggers your circadian rhythm which tells you when to wake up and when to go to sleep. 

By bathing myself in blue light late at night, I was telling my brain that it was still daytime and so it delayed sending out the signal to initiate the sleep cycle until after I turned off the computer and went to bed.

I thought about changing my end-of-day routine, but realized I’m pretty much addicted to my computer use. Fortunately, the people at Apple have provided a solution. There is a program built into their computers and phones that will change the color emitted by their screens in the evening, going from blue-white to a soft yellow-amber. Problem solved! The program is called ‘Night Shift’ and you can find it by clicking on the ‘Display’ icon in System Preferences or Settings.

Alternatively, you can buy glasses that block the harmful wavelengths.

I’ll close with one more snippet from the book:

So, you ask, why is it that our circadian rhythm is triggered by blue light and not by full-spectrum sunlight?

You might recall that we are descended from fish and their aquatic predecessors. The circadian rhythm was an adaptation that evolved while we were living in water. But water filters out the other wavelengths of natural light leaving only the blues and greens. Eons ago, then, our evolutionary ancestors lived in a world that oscillated from darkness to blue and back again. And that’s the light pattern that controls your circadian rhythm to this very day!

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S2E39. The 50th Reunion

We were 21 and 22 years old. It was our last semester at Brown University. There were 7 of us: 4 girls and 3 guys. We shared the left half of a duplex at 43 East Manning Street in Providence, Rhode Island. It was 1972.

Five of us got together on Cape Cod this past weekend for our 50th reunion. We came from Oregon, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. On Friday, we zoomed with the 2 missing classmates who live in New York and California. Although various combinations of us had gotten together over the years, this was the first time we had all been together since graduation day a little over half a century ago.

It was remarkably easy being together again in a shared living space. We brought photos and journals and letters we’d kept. We reminisced about how our group formed during the first 2 years at Brown, about our time on East Manning Street, and about the years since.

We shared memory after memory of our days together. Some of the stories were new to me. No one remembered everything. Some remembered more than others. 

Some memories were pulled into consciousness from the deepest of slumbers. Others were made richer and more complete by hearing different perspectives of the same event. 

There was one memory that only I of those who were there remembered. It was a sunny, crisp fall day during our sophomore year and we decided to walk to the Seekonk River which wasn’t very far away. On that afternoon, ripe milkweed pods were opening and the breeze was lifting the seeds out of their husks. Hundreds floated in the air all around us. It was snowing milkweed! I had never seen anything like that before, nor have I since.

I filled my pockets with the feathery fliers even though I didn’t know at the time what I would do with them. A few days later, I found a clear wine bottle and pushed them into it with a pencil. It was a sculpture…a work of art! 

I kept that bottle through the years, brought it with me to the reunion, and told the story of how it came to be. As I sat looking at it, the Jim Croce lyric “If I could save time in a bottle” popped into my head and I realized that that is exactly what I had done.

I have no pictures from that period, so looking through the albums was, to me, astonishing. My visual memories were weak, faded, and in soft focus. Looking at those surprisingly unfaded color photos was like dusting off my own history, restoring it, and mounting it on the wall. I had forgotten how young we were.

Paraphrasing Hillary Clinton, it occurred to me that it takes a village to not only make a memory, but to preserve it.

In 2001—29 years after our time together and 21 years ago—I had occasion to try to capture our experience on paper. Here’s part of what I wrote:

“It was a time of passions expressed and passions denied; a time of independence, intimacy, intensity, and insufferable debate…but never, ever, indifference…Did any of us know that in that shortest of times we had permanently stitched ourselves into the fabric of each other’s lives?”

We toasted the good fortune that first brought our unlikely band together and we toasted the serendipity that allowed us to celebrate it a lifetime later. As we did so, we made more memories to carry with us to a future reunion: walking on the beach, avoiding poison ivy in the cranberry bog, making dinners, eating ice cream in an old schoolhouse, listening to oldies, doing a pot gummy, and visiting with 2 other classmates who were in the area.

And, of course, we took lots of pictures to share with the pair who could not attend and to fill an album that will help preserve these new memories for all of us.

I don’t think anyone wanted it to end. We joked about having a 75th reunion, but quickly realized we would be in our mid-90s, and so we decided we might want to do this again a little sooner than that.

In 1973, just one year after we graduated, Marvin Hamlisch wrote and Barbara Streisand sang ‘The Way We Were:’

“Memories

Light the corners of my mind

Misty watercolor memories

Of the way we were

Scattered pictures

Of the smiles we left behind

Smiles we gave to one another

For the way we were

Can it be that it was all so simple then?

Or has time re-written every line?

If we had the chance to do it all again

Tell me, would we?

Could we?

Memories

May be beautiful and yet

What’s too painful to remember

We simply choose to forget

So it’s the laughter

We will remember

Whenever we remember

The way we were

The way we were”

But we didn’t forget the painful parts. It was a unique combination of laughter and sadness and youth and intimacy and time and place that created the unbreakable bonds that we still feel so strongly today.

And to answer the song’s question, yes…I would do it all again. In a heartbeat!

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S2E38. Dementia Prevention: Brain Games

The notion that playing brain games on your computer can help prevent dementia is rooted in the research on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.

Neurogenesis is the process whereby you can grow new brain cells at any age. Neuroplasticity is the process whereby you can grow new connections between neurons.

In theory, then, anything you do that (1) grows new brain cells, (2) increases the number of synapses between neurons, (3) strengthens cells and/or (4) protects them from harmful chemical interactions should all help slow down the process of cognitive aging. The recipe is pretty simple: bulk up your brain mass while minimizing the things that can cause it to atrophy. 

But it’s not just a theory. The research supports this view.

Exercise grows new cells, increases synaptic connections and strengthens the quality of transmission of electric impulses from cell to cell by thickening the axon’s myelin sheath.

A brain healthy diet provides nutrients that support neurogenesis as well as antioxidants that help clean up neuron-killing chemical detritus (e.g., beta amyloid and tau) that are residuals of your body’s immune response (i.e., inflammation).

Sleep expels toxins that accumulate on a daily basis and also increases the strength of neuronal connections (synapses) which form long-term memories.

When we engage in cognitively challenging activities—especially new and novel tasks—we create more connections. That is why reading a book, learning to play an instrument or to speak a new language, and navigating around a different environment (e.g., traveling) are all brain healthy activities.

But what about playing computer games? The evidence is spotty, but it seems that there might be something there. Enough, anyway, to justify millions of dollars of new research to try to nail down just what it can and can not do.

In S2E29: Brain Training Is Hard Work! I discussed the intense effort I expended during my first week of working with the BrainHQ program. Now, 9 weeks later, I have some data I can report.

First, let me say that I over-did it. Playing these games for an hour each day was exhausting. However, it did allow me to quickly work my way through all 29 tasks covering 6 different functions: attention, brain speed, memory, people skills, intelligence and navigation. After 5 weeks, I dropped down to 30-minute daily workouts, which was much more manageable.

So how did I do?

The program provides you with a percentile ranking that shows how your performance compares to others in your same-age cohort. After 9 weeks, my scores have leveled off and I’m not seeing any more improvement. I placed at the 89th percentile overall among 71-year olds, with individual domain scores that range from the 86th to the 94th percentile.

What is valuable about this is that I now have a baseline measure of my mental status. Going forward, if I maintain my 89th percentile ranking relative to my same-age peers, it will mean that I am aging normally. If that number drops, it will mean that my cognitive decline is a cause for concern. If it goes up, it will be a cause for rejoicing as it will suggest that I am not experiencing the expected pace of cognitive decline.

That information has practical value, too. It appears that measurable and accelerating cognitive decline starts to appear about 6 years before a diagnosis of dementia is usually made. If I continue to play these games on a regular basis over the coming years, my scores should serve as an early warning system of any emerging cognitive problems.

The alternative, of course, is to get a full neuropsychological workup every year. Playing computer games is a lot cheaper and more fun, though.

The knock on using brain games to promote brain health is that, although you can get better at the games, your new learning does not generalize to everyday life and so it has no clinical or practical significance, even if your scores continue to improve.

This past Sunday, though, I actually had a real-life experience for which I directly attribute my success to one of the games I’ve been playing. 

In this game, designed to enhance your speed of visual processing, the computer screen is divided into 8 pizza slice shaped segments. Images of 11 birds are then briefly flashed all at once around the periphery. One of the birds, however, is different from the rest. For example, it might have a white body instead of a rust-colored body, or a white wing instead of a black wing. The task is to click on the slice of the screen where the odd bird appeared.

The more I played this game, the better I got. After a while, I was stunned at how accurate I was with only the briefest glimpse of birds on the screen.

Which raises the logical question: So what?

I’ll tell you what! Last Sunday, we were having breakfast at the home of Sally’s son and daughter-in-law. Tammy mentioned that she had seen a bird fly away from their backyard bird house, but couldn’t tell if it was a blue jay or a bluebird. 

As we stood around talking in the kitchen, out of the corner of my eye through the sliding glass doors I saw the flash of a bird in flight. It was only a flash of color that lasted less than a second, but I was able to process its shade of blue and size, realizing immediately that it was a bluebird.

Impressive, huh?

Then we moved outside to eat breakfast. While we were seated around the table, Sally’s grandson Ryan (who recently graduated from college) brought out a bottle of champagne to make mimosas. When he popped the cork, it rocketed through a gap in a vine-covered fence and landed on the lawn beyond. I was the only one who saw where it went. 

Pretty cool, eh?

OK. So it’s no big deal…but it does suggest that something good is happening inside my head thanks to my computer game playing. 

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