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Sleep: The sweet spot for those in middle to old age – it’s not what you think

Dr Michael Mosley on the importance of routine for sleep

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Although the golden rule has been eight hours for years, a study has now shared that a different number represents the “ideal”. The research from the University of Cambridge and Shanghai’s Fudan University is challenging the magic eight by saying that less sleep is actually better.

If you’re a fan of a long slumber, you won’t like what the research found.

The new study shared that seven hours of sleep each night represents the ideal amount for those in middle to old age.

Looking at nearly 500,000 adults between the ages of 38 and 73, the researchers found that both too little and too much sleep is associated with worse cognitive performance and mental health.

If you’ve ever felt a bit out of it and tired after a long shut-eye, these findings could explain why.

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Consistency when it comes to your sleeping pattern also seems to be important.

While you might want to get in a couple of extra hours during the weekend, the research advised against it.

Lead researcher Professor Barbara Sahakian, from Cambridge University’s department of psychiatry, said: “For every hour that you moved away from seven hours you got worse.

“It’s very clear that the processes that go on in our brain during sleep are very important for maintaining our physical and mental health.”

Although having a good night’s sleep is crucial for everyone, the research shared that it becomes even more important as people age.

“I think it is as important as getting exercise,” added Sahakian.

Using data from the UK Biobank, the study included brain imaging and genetic data for almost 40,000 of the study participants.

The research also found that the area which was most affected by dozing off was the hippocampus.

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Hippocampus describes the brain’s memory centre that has a major role in learning and memory.

Too much as well as too little sleep was linked to a smaller brain volume.

However, the findings shared that people who slept for seven hours performed best on cognitive tests for processing speed, visual attention, memory and problem-solving skills.

Although the study settled on the sweet spot for sleep, it couldn’t prove a causal relationship.

Prof Jianfeng Feng, from Fudan University in Shanghai, said: “While we can’t say conclusively that too little or too much sleep causes cognitive problems, our analysis looking at individuals over a longer period of time appears to support this idea.

“The reasons why older people have poorer sleep appear to be complex, influenced by a combination of our genetic makeup and the structure of our brains.”

The current National Sleep Foundation guidelines advise adults between the ages of 18 and 64 to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

However, sleep length isn’t the only important factor as quality and depth also play a part in your health.

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