The Balancing Act of Sleep

Feeling well-slept is far more difficult than it should be, and the reasons are obvious: School keeps us up late, work drags us in early, and every other worthwhile endeavor’s limited to whatever single-digit sum of free time that the calendar’s balance sheet dictates. Sleep is a biological necessity, but consistent amounts of it are not guaranteed. I’m sure the above is something you can relate to. If it isn’t, consider me envious.

Despite its ubiquity, we’re still learning new details about this behavior that shed light upon the mechanisms that demand shut eye, and the mechanisms that suffer when we don’t get enough of it. Longitudinal research in Sleep suggests that large enough changes from a baseline amount of sleep are commensurate to cognitive decline later on in life (Ferrie, J, et al., 2011).  Specifically, when you routinely get fewer than 6 or greater than 8 hours of sleep each night, you lose your cognitive edge a bit faster.

Cant sleep

Insomnia can lead to difficulty sleeping

Cognitive ability was assessed using a battery of standardized tests, measuring memory, reasoning, vocabulary, phonemic fluency, semantic fluency, and global cognitive status. The same men and women interviewed and tested in the late 90’s came back roughly five years later to revisit these word problems, puzzles, and other assorted paper-based quests. 5,431 participants in total provided data for the reported analysis.  That’s an impressive number of data points, matched in significance only by the sheer challenge that corralling those individuals over a five year period must be.

Now, it should come as no surprise that people naturally differ in their performance on the standardized tests used in this study. Ferrie et al. realized this too, yet still saw a significant relationship between less-than-ideal sleep cycles and reduced performance. In their participant pool of mostly white-collar workers, job title, salary, and educational history didn’t explain much of the story. Surely there are other confounding qualities that could explain why someone performed better or worse across the two testing periods, but for the time being, targeting sleeping habits seems compelling.  Sleep habits are, after all, a pretty universal aspect of everyone’s lives.

It’s important to remember that whatever decline in cognitive performance described by this study is closely associated with natural “cognitive softening” at a later age, hence the authors’ conclusion that abnormal sleeping patterns accelerate cognitive aging. Whether or not said decline would be appreciable during one’s day to day activities is another question altogether.

Regardless of how old you are, you’ve probably found yourself at odds with the time you have set aside for sleep, and the other time that you wish you could add for the same purpose. Luckily, there are a lot of simple behavioral tricks you can try before resorting to medicine (and at that point, the implications of this article might not apply anyway).

Quite possibly the most obvious strategy to try fist is to force yourself to go to bed, and to get up, during the hours that guarantee you between 6 and 8 hours of sleep (ladies, shoot for 7 — the reduction in cognitive performance seems to affect the fairer sex sooner when this target number is missed, for reasons not explained here). After a couple of weeks, this becomes habit.

Of course, that can be easier said than done, especially for teenagers, since biological changes coax the body into preferring sleeping and waking later. It’s not uncommon for this condition to follow one into adulthood — it’s called delayed sleep-phase syndrome. Being a night owl even encourages this, obviously.

Reasonable counter-measures involve ceasing caffeine intake around noon (it has a half-life of nearly 6 hours, leaving it in your body well into the evening hours if consumed in the afternoon), dimming lights a couple of hours before bedtime (thereby fostering a “farm environment” that speaks to the melatonin system in your body), and purposefully tiring yourself when you’re ready for shut-eye. Reading in bed seems to work wonders for many.

And if you find yourself a victim of “monkey brain” (see, scientists have a sense of humor, too!) whereby sleep won’t come because you’re thinking too much about it, get up and do something tiring, then return and try nodding off again.

The battle for enough (but not too much) sleep isn’t one that’s easily won thanks to the waking demands that receive frequently-higher prioritization. That’s okay, though — as we continue to unlock more of the universal mystery that is sleep, we arm ourselves by learning when enough is truly enough, and by knowing the sacrifices that skimping may entail.

Ferrie JE; Shipley MJ; Akbaraly TN; Marmot MG; Kivimäki M; Singh-Manoux A. Change in sleep duration and cognitive function: findings from the Whitehall II study. Sleep, 2011; 34 (5): 565-573.

Verma, N; Pinola, M. End your insomnia, snoring, and other sleep problems with these expert tips. Lifehacker. Retrieved May 6th, 2011, from

Image retrieved from

About fictionism

Hi there. I've got a doctorate in Cognitive Science/HCI, a love for all things tech, and two turntables and a microphone.

Posted on May 8, 2011, in Medicine and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Nice information, nice web page layout, keep up the great work

  2. Where is the facebook like button ?

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