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No rest for the wicked takes on a whole new meaning as the years add up. Here, smart strategies to help you get a good night's sleep.

A lot goes on behind closed eyes during sleep, even though many in our 24-7 society think it a time waster. As Shakespeare's Macbeth pointed out, sleep "knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care," restoring energy and tissues, enabling learning and creativity, managing memory and fighting infections. Cheat on it, and it's hard to remember, problem-solve and absorb information to cache on the brain's hard drive. And there are health risks.

Sleeping less than seven hours per night on a regular basis is associated with weight gain and obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke, depression, and increased risk of death. It's also associated with impaired immune function—a flu shot may be less effective if the recipient is sleep-deprived.

Making sleep a top priority could be the best preventive medicine for your brain. Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., studying mice have linked disrupted sleep and the development of Alzheimer's disease. They suspect orexin, a protein that provokes the brain to wake, increases amyloid plaque, which is found in those with the disease.

And sleep, it seems, is the brain's Molly Maid. Scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y., compared the brains of awake and sleeping mice and realized that certain brain cells contract during sleep, leaving spaces around arteries. Cerebral spinal fluid washes through these channels, flushing out harmful toxins that build up during waking hours, such as beta-amyloid that's associated with Alzheimer's disease. (A recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience noted that sleeping on the side or back does this most efficiently.) Lack of quality sleep reduces the efficiency of this waste-removing "glymphatic system." It's thought accumulated waste products block and enlarge the channels around blood vessels in the brain. In fact, cognitive researchers at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre noted brain imaging findings suggestive of enlargement of these channels in stroke patients who had poor quality sleep.

Dr. Mark Boulos, a neurologist and lead investigator for the Sunnybrook study, suggests people who blame unsatisfactory sleep on age or health conditions should see their doctor to pinpoint and clarify the actual cause.

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