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Connie Womack and her daughter Najwa get a lesson in sleep, memory, and blood pressure from one of the thousands of neurologists providing volunteer tutorials and demonstrations during the Brain Health Fair. (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman)

Most adults have heard the adage: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” but many African Americans continue to burn the midnight oil and often to the detriment of their health.  Neurologists are finding new correlations between a host of chronic conditions – including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease – and the body’s inability to heal itself due to lack of proper sleep.  Lack of sleep can also alter memory, cause accidents, cause weight gain, and impact mood stability.

The American Academy of Neurology recently kicked off its annual convention with a day-long Brain Health Fair highlighting newadvances in treating brain ailments and offering free health screenings and consults with neurologists to the public.

According to a National Sleep Foundation study, Blacks reported the least amount of sleep and the busiest bedtime routines, resulting in fewer sleep hours, more frequent interruptions in sleep, and the need for occasional medications to help produce sound sleep. Several neurologists spoke exclusively with the {AFRO} to discuss the importance of sleep and ways to get the necessary amount of sleep for good brain and body health.

Marian Emr, of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said that sleep deprivation may be less about race than living in urban areas where people are driven to put a premium on work, play, and entertainment, but little on sleep.

“The amount of sleep you get, the amount of water you drink and the amount of food (nutrients) in the body all have a strong impact on the health of your brain.  We’re starting to see where blood pressure is impacted negatively by lack of sleep, and also that chronic high blood pressure is leading to memory loss.  Sleep is vital to controlling blood pressure and overall brain health,” Emr said.

Chandra Jackson, postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, said, “With increasing numbers of Blacks entering professional and management roles in numerous industries, it is important to investigate and address the social factors contributing to short sleep disparities in Blacks, compared with Whites in general, and particularly in professional settings,” said Jack­son.

Robert Cowan, Director of Neurology and Neurological Science at Stanford University Medical Center, said that in addition to impacting performance and memory, lack of sleep impedes the body’s natural ability to heal itself and contributes to chronic pain. “People really do get mood variability when they do not get enough sleep, but by exposing patients to preventative care and helping them understand the importance of quality sleep, keeps health concerns from becoming chronic.  Diet, daily exercise, water intake and sleep are lifestyle changes that make a difference in overall brain health,” said Cowan.