To Sleep Perchance to Dream: How Screens, Wine, Dogs & Coffee Affect Memory Health

Here’s the irony: for lack of sleep this week, due to a cross-country trip out to Neurotrack headquarters and back, I have been having trouble writing this blog about sleep. Normally, I do not write these posts in the first person, but every time I sit down to write this one in the standard format — here’s some info on a topic, here’s how that topic affects memory, here’s what you can do to keep your memory intact —  I feel like a hypocrite. In fact, this week in particular I have been a terrible sleeper. I stayed up way too late on Monday night after flying to California; I kept dozing off, due to jet lag, at a performance on Tuesday night; I stayed up too late on Wednesday night scrolling through my phone in bed (a sleep no no!) after flying back from California to New York, and then I got sick thanks to that sneezing woman sitting next to me on the plane, so now I have no idea which way is up. My sleep and health are a mess.

All this to say, I get it. Oh, do I get it! At my recent 30th college reunion, the alumni office conducted a survey to figure out, as a class, who we are and what we want. Do you know what the Harvard class of 1988 said they wanted more of in their lives, more than more money or sex? That’s right. Sleep!

But here’s the rub: If you and I (and your friends and loved ones) continue on this sleepless path, we are damaging our memory health, both in the short term and in the long run. For example, here are just three of the words and phrases, in my sleepless state, I couldn’t conjure this week: boxspring (oh, the added irony of this one), trial and error, and passive. Instead, I said, “You know, that thing that goes under the mattress, what’s it called?” and “You know, when you try something, but it doesn’t work, so you try it again and again?” and “Oh, god, what’s the word for the opposite of active?” There were countless other examples, but of course I’m too sleep-deprived to remember any of them.

The science is irrefutable: chronic sleep deprivation destroys short term memory. Worse, poor sleepers have a significantly higher number of Alzheimer’s-related biomarkers. Lack of sleep can also lead to injury, which can keep us from engaging in the physical activities we require to keep our brains from cognitive decline. It increases our desire for processed foods which, in turn, is harmful to memory health. And it triggers stress, which decreases sleep, leading to a vicious cycle, and yes, it took me longer than I’d like to admit to conjure the phrase vicious cycle.

So what is to be done? It’s actually quite simple. Keep your phone and all screens away from your bedside. I know, easier said than done, but that blue light wreaks havoc on your melatonin levels, which then interrupts sleep cycles. If possible, end all screen time at least 90 minutes prior to bedtime and read a book instead. Make sure your bedroom is neither too hot nor too cold. Try your best to go to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, yes, even on the weekends. Keep furry friends out of the bed: they interrupt sleep. Stop smoking, make sure your medications are not causing insomnia, don’t exercise within four hours of bedtime, and for heaven’s sake, no caffeine after 2 PM. Meanwhile, that glass of wine you like to have with dinner or that martini after work? You’d be better off winding down with a nice glass of water. Dips in blood alcohol levels when you’re in a deep sleep state a few hours later will signal your body to wake up. I personally gave up wine with dinner a few years ago on the advice of my doctor, when I kept bolting awake at 3 AM, and I can tell you it was the best thing I ever did for my sleep health.

When you wake up, open up those blinds immediately. “Rise and shine” are not just empty words parents shout out to their kids: the sun’s rays actually are an important signal to your body to wake up. Down a morning glass of water (or coffee or tea are fine, too): hydration is key to replace water lost during sleep due to sweating and breathing. Then, get moving. If you can’t get to the gym or go on a walk, bike ride, or run, even ten minutes of yoga or core exercises or aerobic activity next to your bed several mornings a week will boost physical health, which will help you sleep better in the long run.

Then, if you have a week like I did, where life and work and sneezing airline seatmates make you neglect all of the advice above, please cut yourself some slack. Protecting your memory health is an ongoing battle, and some days and weeks and maybe even months you will not be on your game. We are all human, imperfect, and the goal is to do our best, given the circumstances in our lives, to get the sleep our brains need to keep our memories intact for as long as possible. Tonight I plan to go to sleep at 10 PM and get up at 6 AM, which is the schedule I’ve found to be my ideal sleep cycle. Then the next night, the same, rinse, repeat. In life, as in sleep, we must recommit ourselves — one day at a time and one night at a time — to doing the best we can.

Because, I mean, seriously, boxspring? I never want to have another week so lacking in sleep that I cannot conjure the word for the thing-a-majig I actually sleep on. And no more trial and error or passivity either: today I recommit myself to actively following a set sleep schedule and to staying away from screens before bedtime. Keeping my memories and brain function intact is too important to me to have another week like this one. I’m betting you feel the same.

 

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a 7-part series created by Neurotrack about maintaining your cognitive health and well-being. It’s Neurotrack’s way of marking World Alzheimer’s Month. The science is clear, the evidence unequivocal: the new habits you start today can make an enormous difference in the health of your brain of tomorrow. Next week we will discuss social interaction: how time spent with friends and loved ones can actually boost memory and cognition. Please check back here to learn more.

Deborah Copaken
Deborah Copaken

Deborah Copaken, Head Writer at Neurotrack, is also a New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book and Shutterbabe, among others. Her work appears regularly in The Atlantic as well as in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post, and many others.