What if there was a way to boost your brain power that didn’t require any extra time or effort? What’s more, doing this one thing could help stave off the gradual decline in thinking and reasoning ability that affects everyone as they age.
If that sounds too good to be true, it’s not. Last year, Jonathan Charlesworth, PhD, Staff Research Scientist at Fitbit, began looking at the correlation between Fitbit users’ sleep patterns and their scores on the cognition-measuring Think Fast app soon after its launch last year.
What he found was that Fitbit users who spent the most time in REM and deep sleep had the highest scores and the fastest reaction times in Think Fast. But what was even more surprising was that adults over 40 who had higher-quality sleep had scores equivalent to those 10 years younger.
“It’s pretty well known that as people age, their cognitive abilities decline,” says Charlesworth, who is a neuroscientist by training. “But what we found was that older Fitbit users who have higher quality sleep—in other words, more deep sleep and more REM sleep—perform better in the app. That may mean it’s possible to prevent some degree of cognitive aging.”
For the time-crunched, there’s more good news: You don’t need that much sleep to get the most benefit. Charlesworth’s data show that female Fitbit users need between 5 hours and 50 minutes and 6 hours and 30 minutes of total sleep time. Male users need even less: Between 5 hours and 6 hours and 20 minutes. Since most of us awaken periodically during the night, that translates into about 7 hours total of time in bed.
How does this data translate to personal use?
First, you’ll want to download Fitbit’s Think Fast app. Then, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the game, which measures your reaction and response times, as well as your ability to multitask. It only takes two minutes to play the game, and you’ll want to play it a few times to get a baseline score.
Next, commit to playing the game once a day, ideally at the same time each day but not first thing in the morning. Why? Charlesworth says it can take about an hour for your brain to start performing optimally after a night’s rest.
Your score should stay pretty consistent over time. If it starts to decline by 5 to 10 percent, though, that’s when it’s time to examine other factors that could be affecting your score, including stress, alcohol or caffeine consumption, low activity, and (especially) sleep.
Michael Grandner, PhD, director of the Sleep & Health Research Program at the University of Arizona and a scientific advisor for Fitbit, suggests the following to improve the quality of your sleep.
1. Practice stimulus control
“This is so effective that even if you have chronic insomnia, you can cure it,” Grandner says. The technique involves two steps: 1) Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning. 2) Getting up after 20 minutes if you’re not asleep. “If you’re tossing and turning, get up and do something else. Otherwise, your brain starts to associate the bed with thinking instead of sleeping,” Grandner says.
2. Plan for at least seven hours of sleep a night
Sleep stages occur in cycles, with the first stages of REM sleep lasting only a few minutes, and later stages lasting 20 minutes or longer. “After four or five hours of sleep, a lot of what you’re getting is REM sleep,” says Grandner . If you only spend five and a half or six hours in bed, though, you might be missing out.
3. Consult with your doctor
Those who suffer from sleep apnea tend to sleep lightly, so they never enter that deep, restful sleep that’s so crucial to maintaining brain health. Similarly, if you have pain or discomfort, or if you’re taking medications that prevent you from sleeping deeply, talk to your doctor about alternatives, says Grandner.
4. Limit cell phone or laptop use for an hour before sleep
Not only can scrolling through Facebook or watching silly YouTube videos cost you time, but the constant stimulation from electronic devices can also make it hard for your brain to shut down. “It’s just like driving a car; you can’t hit the brakes and expect to stop immediately,” Grandner says. “It’s the same with your brain. You need to give yourself time to wind down and get ready to sleep.”
5. Cut down on caffeine and alcohol
While they act in opposite ways on the brain — caffeine acts as a stimulant while alcohol has sedative effects — both can be disruptive to your brain’s natural sleep cycles. While caffeine tolerance is highly personal, having more than a couple of alcoholic drinks at night can interrupt your sleep, says Grandner.
6. Keep the room cool
Since your body temperature drops at night, a hot room can keep you from drifting off to sleep, says Grandner. The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping the bedroom temperature between 60 and 67 degrees and says room temperature may also affect how much REM sleep you get.
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