A recent study published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity has uncovered a potential setback to the cognitive benefits of regular exercise, particularly for individuals who do not get enough sleep—specifically, those who sleep less than six hours per night.
The study highlighted that individuals who engaged in higher levels of physical activity but experienced short sleep durations—averaging less than six hours—exhibited faster cognitive decline overall. Shockingly, after a span of ten years, their cognitive function resembled that of peers who engaged in less physical activity.
Dr. Mikaela Bloomberg, the lead author from University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, emphasized the importance of considering both sleep and physical activity together when contemplating cognitive health. She stated, “Our study suggests that getting sufficient sleep may be required for us to reap the full cognitive benefits of physical activity. It shows how important it is to consider sleep and physical activity together when thinking about cognitive health.”
In contrast to previous cross-sectional studies, which only examined a snapshot of time, this study provided a longitudinal perspective on the combined effects of sleep and physical activity on cognitive function. The findings surprised the researchers, revealing that regular physical activity might not always suffice to counteract the long-term consequences of sleep deprivation on cognitive health.
Consistent with prior research, the study demonstrated that sleeping between six and eight hours per night and engaging in higher levels of physical activity correlated with better cognitive function.
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During the ten-year period, the research team assessed the cognitive function of 8,958 individuals aged 50 and above in England. At the start of the study, those who were more physically active exhibited superior cognitive function regardless of their sleep duration.
However, this relationship shifted over time, with physically active individuals who experienced short sleep durations (less than six hours) demonstrating more rapid cognitive decline. This accelerated decline was observed among participants in their 50s and 60s within this group. Surprisingly, for older participants aged 70 and above, the cognitive benefits of exercise seemed to persist despite insufficient sleep.
Co-author Professor Andrew Steptoe from UCL’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care stressed the importance of identifying factors that can safeguard cognitive function in midlife and beyond. By doing so, we can extend the years of cognitive well-being and, for some individuals, postpone the onset of dementia diagnoses.