Children that do not get enough sleep every night may have less developed brains than their peers – putting them at risk of significant mental health and memory issues later in life, a new study finds.
Researchers at the University of Maryland found that youngsters aged nine and ten years old who were getting less than the recommended nine to 12 hours of sleep each night had less brain matter and less volume in some areas that their peers that did get enough sleep.
Deficiencies in brain matter were long-lasting as well, signaling that poor sleep habits at a young age could potentially cause harm for the rest of a person’s life.
These changes to the brain are correlated with poor mental health, intelligence, memory problems and a myriad of other problems later in life. Experts fear that any damage done during this period is irreversible, even if a child does adopt healthier sleeping habits later in life.
While many have known poor sleep can affect a person’s memory and mood, this is the first study to show the life-long impact that can be had by picking up bad habits in a person’s youth.
Researchers found that children aged nine and 10 that were not getting the recommended nine hours of sleep every night had less gray matter in the brain – putting them at risk of cognitive and mental health issues throughout their lives
‘This is a crucial study finding that points to the importance of doing long-term studies on the developing child’s brain,’ Dr Albert Reece, executive vice president for Medical Affairs at the University of Maryland, said in a statement.
‘Sleep can often be overlooked during busy childhood days filled with homework and extracurricular activities. Now we see how detrimental that can be to a child’s development.’
Researchers gathered data from a pool of participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development, a massive neuroscience project that gathers data on thousands of kids to be used in research like this.
For the study, published in the Lancet, data from 8,300 children aged nine or ten years old.
Half of a the children reported receiving the recommended nine to 12 hours of sleep each night, while the other half did not.
Each participant was in one half was matched with one in the other based on gender, puberty status, socioeconomic class and other factors that could impact their brain.
‘We tried to match the two groups as closely as possible to help us more fully understand the long-term impact on too little sleep on the pre-adolescent brain,’ Dr Ze Wang, a radiology professor at Maryland, said in a statement.
‘Additional studies are needed to confirm our finding and to see whether any interventions can improve sleep habits and reverse the neurological deficits.’
Dr Albert Reece (left), executive vice president for Medical Affairs at the University of Maryland, said that the findings were crucial as sleep is often overlooked in a child’s life. Dr Ze Wang (right), a radiology professor at Maryland who co-authored the study, called the findings ‘concerning’
Researchers gathered MRI scans, medical records and completed surveys from each participant and compared them to determine the impact a good night’s sleep alone could have on the brain.
Participants were then followed up with two years later – when they were between the ages of 11 and 12 – to see what kind of long-term impact this lack of sleep could have on them.
‘We found that children who had insufficient sleep, less than nine hours per night, at the beginning of the study had less grey matter or smaller volume in certain areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory, and inhibition control, compared to those with healthy sleep habits,’ Ze, a study co-author, explained.
‘These differences persisted after two years, a concerning finding that suggests long-term harm for those who do not get enough sleep.’
Over the two year follow up period, children who were getting enough sleep generally saw their daily sleep levels slightly decrease, though they were still within a fine range for the most part.
Children who were not getting enough sleep between ages nine and ten usually stayed at that level.
The link between sleep and brain health has long been known. People who get more sleep are generally in a better mood and are better at managing stress. As a result, they will often have better mental health.
A rested brain generally is less forgetful as well, and will perform better on cognitive tests and other tasks that require mental focus.
This study finds that poor habits in a person’s youth could potentially follow them for the rest of their lives.
A 2010 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that people with less gray matter – one of the detected side-effects of less sleep in the Maryland study – are more likely to have impaired memory, heart issues, and executive dysfunctions.