How you may be doubling your risk of dementia

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The older we get the rarer those nights of deep, restorative sleep, but the evidence is overwhelming that good sleep is essential to good health.

As we age, we produce less of the hormone melatonin, which helps us sleep, and it is delivered earlier in the day, hence the urge for a nanna nap.

It is well documented that a lack of sleep can lead to accidents, weight gain, depression, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and if that’s not anxiety-inducing enough (anxiety being another side effect of poor sleep), dementia has now been added to that list.

A five-year study, published in the journal Aging, found that risk of dementia was double among participants who reported sleeping fewer than five hours a night compared with those who reported sleeping seven to eight hours a night.

The research, led by a team from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, also found associations between sleep disturbance and sleep deficiency with an overall risk of death.

“Our findings illuminate a connection between sleep deficiency and risk of dementia and confirm the importance of efforts to help older individuals obtain sufficient sleep each night,” said lead author Dr Rebecca Robbins, of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders.

The US National Sleep Foundation survey found that more than 50 per cent of over 65s reported at least one sleep difficulty “most of the time”.

The Harvard Gazette reported that Dr Robbins and her colleagues used data collected from older adults participating in the US National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS), a longitudinal study of Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 and older, that began in 2011.

A sample of 2610 participants answered sleep questionnaires in 2013 and `14. Researchers examined their answers about sleep disturbance and deficiency, including alertness, nap frequency, how long it took them to fall asleep, sleep quality (good/very good, fair, very poor/poor), duration and snoring.

They also collected information about patient outcomes such as dementia and death from any cause for up to five years after the survey.

Overall, they found a strong relationship between several sleep disturbance and deficiency variables and incident dementia over time – those who developed the disease over the five years.

Routinely taking 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep was associated with a 45 per cent greater risk for incident dementia. Routinely experiencing difficulty in maintaining alertness, napping, reporting poor sleep quality, and sleeping five or fewer hours a night was also associated with increased risk of death.

“This prospective study reveals that sleep deficiency at baseline, when the average age of participants was 76 years old, was associated with double the risk of incident dementia and all-cause mortality over the next four to five years,” said senior author Charles Czeisler.

“Our study demonstrates that very short sleep durations and poor-quality sleep in the elderly increase the risk of developing dementia and earlier death. There should be increased focus on obtaining healthy sleep in older adults,” said second author Stuart Quan.

The authors called for further study of the causal relationship between sleep and dementia and death.

For good sleep habits, the Sleep Health Foundation recommends:

  • Going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time. Aim for seven to eight hours’ sleep.
  • Daily exercise and time outdoors to boost melatonin production.
  • No screens, exercise, or big discussions 1-2 hours before bed.
  • Limit caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes to earlier in the day.
  • Create a dark, quiet, cool, comfortable bedroom to use only for sleep and intimacy.
  • If you are not asleep within 20 to 30 minutes of going to bed, go to another darkened room and sit quietly. When you feel tired and sleepy again go back to bed. Rest is good – it does not have to be sleep.
  • If stressed, set aside a ‘worry time’ during the evening to think about the day, make plans and develop possible solutions. Then don’t think about these things until the next day. If thoughts come in, consider them for a moment and then try to gently replace them with calm thoughts.
  • If you need a nap, keep it to no more than 30 minutes, and no later than the afternoon.

Are you a good sleeper? Or is sleep becoming more elusive as you’ve aged? How do you deal with any sleep problems?

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Written by Rebecca Tolan

Rebecca has worked in journalism for 20 years, been a DIY-er for more, and is in the middle of her very own grand design. Retirement seems a long way off! In her spare time she rows surfboats, plays volleyball with her kids and dreams of future holidays.


Total Comments: 5
  1. 1

    Severe lack of money & associated stress with lack of money causes lack of sleep (also known as shiftwork for me). Life is hard making ends meet, resulting in stress, resulting in lack of sleep.
    It has me baffled how some people seem to get thru life without stress having to work even a regular hrs/regular paying job. I have had to do shiftwork for 19yrs of my 59yrs of life (& worked hard for yrs prior to that) to get to a point where I’m debt free but still need money to live day to day, if i did NOT have to do this I would sleep better & my risk of dementia would be much less (tho my genetics are against me having a dad who suffered the last 5yrs of his life with dementia & he had to work hard -including shift work almost all of his life as well- tho he put on a happy face, the stress must’ve been enormous! He was super fit til the day he died at 87, so the exercise theory proven wrong in his case!

    Now tell me how to avoid working our arses off to avoid stress to avoid dementia, thankyou…Oh an inheritance maybe but that’s not available to me either (nor do I expect it!)

    • 1

      Stress is not so much about what happens to us, it’s more about how we react to what happens. Changing how we react is the key to lowering stress. And this is where activities such as meditation or yoga comes in (for those that like them) or even regular exercise outdoors. Lowering the markers of stress such as blood pressure, through diet and exercise can also lead to better sleep patterns.

  2. 2

    I just love stats: are people who have poor sleep more likely to get Demenia, OR are people who are likely to get Dementia poor sleepers? There are srong differences in these, but in the end we will probably never know, and those that get Dementia won’t care.

    I suspect that worrying about Dementia will give you Dementia.

  3. 1

    I have very poor sleep, and it has been getting worse over the last year, so Covid stress may have something to do with it. I do have a problem with my left nostril, have had 2 operations, but the problem is that surgery is not a permanent solution, and I may also just have sleep apnoea as well, so i am going to get a referral for one of those sleep studies.

  4. 0

    there are good books on the subject (such as Dr Mosely) as well as research you can do on the internet. Personally I find endep tablets quite good as I can go to sleep initially but wake 2 or 3 hours later fully alert ready to go, so getting back to sleep then is a problem. It is also an age thing as I am now 74. Endep appear to be non habit forming plus bereft of other dangers so I was told by Dr. One other thing I have tried which seems to work and may sound strange. Put one of my limbs (arm or leg) in an awkward position which feels little uncomfortable but not hurting of course. This distracts my mind from trying to go to sleep !! Always wake up hours later finding the limb in comfortable position.



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