Balanced Body and Brain: A FOX 8 special report
New Orleans, La. -- The sound of an alarm clock. It is something many people would rather not hear. It is an hour of reckoning for some, depending on decisions they made the night before.
"Right now probably about six and a half," said Sharon Brown, when asked about the duration of her sleep.
Lee Strayhan was asked whether he routinely gets less than six hours of slumber.
"Yes, sometimes, sure. I got two little kids," Strayhan said.
It has been said that sleep is over-rated. But there is growing research which shows that skimping on sleep does more than just zap energy.
"You will see a brain that is under pressure," said Morteza Shamsnia, M.D., a neurology professor at Tulane's School of Medicine.
In July, researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston released findings at the Alzheimer's Association Internal Conference. Their research indicates that getting too little sleep can cause brain aging.
The researchers examined data for more than 15,000 participants in the Nurses' Health Study. They focused on the effects of sleep on cognition in mid-life to later years. Cognition refers to mental activities, such as thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering.
The study concluded that people who slept five hours or less per day had a lower average cognition than those sleeping seven hours.
"There are several components being activated in the brain, but ultimately the cortex, the cerebral cortex is the site of learning, memory, organizational information," said Nicolas Bazan, M.D., Ph.D., Director of LSU Health Sciences Center's Neuroscience Center. He said for decades sleep was thought of as being a very passive or dormant state. But that way of thinking has changed dramatically.
"Let's say that somebody does not get into the deep phases of sleep, those processes are affected," Dr. Bazan said, as he used a brain replica for demonstration.
"We need an average, most of us, 95 percent of us need seven and a half hours of sleep," said Dr. Shamsnia.
At a Metairie sleep center, Dr. Shamsnia helps patients get to the bottom of persistent sleep problems.
"If we don't get the seven or eight hours it's like a mortgage, it accumulates and you have to pay down that debt," he stated.
But do our brains also get drowsy when cheated of regular sleep?
"Yes, absolutely," said Dr. Bazan, in response.
While some people are quick to notice the red flags of reduced sleep, others ignore the hints.
"Six hours… my head starts to go a little bit," said Amanda Ottogalli.
The symptoms of sleep shortage are many.
"Not easily remembering things, not easily learning, an inability to concentrate," Dr. Bazan, further stated.
"It affects the whole body immune system," said Dr. Shamsnia.
But before anyone starts shooting for 10 hours of sleep a night, a warning. There is also research which shows we don't do our brain any favors by sleeping too long, either.
"There are now studies even that if you sleep too much it's not also good for you because it affects certain hormones, and those hormones are essential for our mental functions. You deplete them and you will put yourself in depression and other mental disorders," Shamsnia said.
The Brigham and Women's Hospital researchers concluded that people who slept nine hours per day or longer also had lower cognition than those sleeping seven hours. Also, they stated that too little, or too much sleep was "cognitively equivalent" to aging by two years.
Further, they said their findings support the notion that extreme sleep durations and changes in sleep duration may contribute to early Alzheimer's changes in older adults.
A study published by British researchers last year suggested even more aging of the brain related to sleep deprivation. It tracked 5,400 participants and researchers say their findings show that women and men who moved toward the short and long ends of sleep distribution appear to be subject to accelerated cognitive aging equivalent to a 3 to 8 year increase in age.
Doctors Bazan and Shamsnia were asked whether it is possible for a 30 year old to have a brain that is about 45 years old because of sleep deprivation.
"Yes, it depends on what kind of [sleep disease], you know, we have about 88 sleep disorders," responded Shamsnia.
"This is the contemporary thinking. There could be perturbations, or alterations in the brain, absolutely," said Bazan.
But clearly mental deterioration does not happen overnight.
"It goes on for months and years, that's where the problem is. One night doesn't really have a major effect," Shamsnia added.
Still, medical professionals said that is not an excuse to shortchange sleep, regardless of your age.
"All of these groups of cells in the brain that are inter-connected that need to be talking to each other in an harmonious way, sleep allows that harmony," said Bazan.
And the quality of sleep matters. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, there are five stages of sleep. Stage one involves light sleep, while during stages three and four it is harder to wake someone from sleep.
REM or rapid eye movement is a fifth and critical stage, accounting for about 25-percent of an individual's total sleep. And according to Dr. Shamsnia, REM occurs several times during the normal sleep cycle.
"REM sleep is important for cognition, for memory for mental function, and non REM is for our physical," stated Shamsnia.
"Dreaming is one aspect that happens when we go into the deep stages of sleep, into REM, rapid eye movement condition," continued Bazan.
Most people rob themselves of slumber time at one point or another.
But whether it's done willingly, or because of physical conditions like sleep apnea, chronic sleep deprivation can be a slippery slope.
"I have seen a lot of people have brain damage from sleep related disorders," added Dr. Shamsnia.
He said sleep disorders which affect oxygen levels are extremely serious.
"There are a lot of studies now showing that people get even blood clots," he added.
The thought of having a brain that is aging faster than the rest of the body grabs attention.
"Oh, we don't want that," said Ottogalli.
"We are abusing our brain, and we are abusing in a sense our body and ultimately we're going to pay the price," said Shamsnia.
And researchers say the currency may include having a brain that is aging faster than it should in a society where people are living longer.
Dr. Shamsnia said sex hormones also take a big hit when sleep is abbreviated.
Meanwhile, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that at least 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders, and another 20 million have occasional sleeping problems, accounting for $16 billion dollars in medical costs each year.