Lack of sleep lifts dementia risk and these tactics don't work

There is no upside to sleeping fewer than the minimum recommended seven hours of sleep a day. New studies prove that our physical and mental health is compromised and there’s an even greater risk of developing dementia in later life if we have sleep problems in our 50s and 60s.

But when sleep is an issue – and one that often escalates as we age – how to achieve that highly sought-after state of blissful unconsciousness?

New studies show that if you’re trying either of these methods, you’re backing a loser.

First up, sleeping pills.

Two years of data from nearly 700 middle-aged women showed that long-term use of medications, such as Ambien, Lunesta and some anti-anxiety prescriptions, don’t help us sleep better in the long run, according to a report published in BMJ Open.

“Long-term use of medications for sleep is not associated with reductions in sleep problems,” said study lead author, Dr Daniel Solomon, a professor of medicine in rheumatology and pharmacoepidemiology at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“We looked at women who had a similar baseline description of their sleep disturbances and compared those who were still taking the medications after two years to women who had not ever taken them, and we found no difference in sleep outcomes.”

Read more: Sleep has the power to solve your brain and memory problems

The study compared 238 women with a mean age of 49.5 who were using sleep medications with 447 non-users. The trial concluded that many of the most commonly used drugs worked when taken for short periods, but they were ineffective when taken for longer, which also raised other health concerns.

“The study backs up experts who say the medications can be tools if they are used in the short term to help people with insomnia get to the point where they can start sleeping better,” said Dr Alon Avidan, a professor of neurology and director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. “But they cannot be used by themselves.”

The problem with using medication to control insomnia symptoms is that “it provides patients with some relief but the sleep they get on medication is more sedation than sleep,” said Dr Avidan.

“Treating insomnia patients with medication alone is like giving diabetes patients medication and then telling them they don’t need to exercise and they can go ahead and eat all the candy and junk food they want,” he added.

Second up, catch-up sleep over the weekend. Can that work?

Read more: How to … fall back asleep

More bad news. Another new study, published in the journal Current Biology, finds that catch-up sleep puts people at risk of gaining weight.

It showed that people who did not sleep enough during the week but caught extra hours over the weekend tended to snack more and have an increased risk of diabetes.

“Our findings suggest that the common behaviour of burning the candle during the week and trying to make up for it on the weekend is not an effective health strategy,” said the paper’s senior author, Kenneth Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The researchers divided healthy adults into three groups: those who slept nine hours a night for nine consecutive days, those who had their sleep restricted to only five hours a night for nine nights, and those who slept no more than five hours a night for five days followed by a weekend when they could sleep as much as they liked, before returning to restricted sleep for two days.

Both sleep-deprived groups snacked more at night, resulting in weight gain, and saw declines in insulin sensitivity, a warning sign for diabetes. The weekend recovery group experienced some mild improvement during the weekend, but those benefits were negated when they resumed their weekday sleep-restricted schedule.

Read more: Sex before bed can almost double your REM sleep

Finally, a study published in Nature Communications found that people who slept six hours or less per night in their 50s and 60s were more likely to develop dementia later in life.

The British study examined the health data of almost 8000 adults over 25 years and found there was a higher risk of later dementia among people who were sleeping six or fewer hours per night at age 50 or 60.

The risk was deemed to be 30 per cent higher in those who consistently had short sleep from middle to older age compared to people who slept seven hours a night, independent of major dementia risk factors such as mental illness and cardiovascular disease.

Professor Sharon Naismith, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, told Nine that the new research gave greater clarity to the relationship between sleep in midlife and the risk of dementia in later life.

She explained that sleep activates the brain’s sewage system, flushing out toxins and harmful proteins associated with different types of dementia. One such substance, the protein beta-amyloid, is a leading hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. It accumulates in the brain during the day but when we sleep cells in the brain shrink, allowing room to wash away any unwanted substances.

Prof. Naismith says people should stay physically and mentally active to boost deep sleep.

Dementia Australia’s honorary medical adviser Associate Professor Michael Woodward said that when someone is consistently not getting enough sleep, it’s possible that it leaves beta-amyloid proteins piling up in the brain.

“It’s that accumulation of beta-amyloid over many years that puts us at increased risk of developing dementia,” he says.

“You must have a good pattern of lifestyle well before you’re getting into 70s and 80s.”

Have you experienced changed sleeping patterns as you’ve aged? Are you coping? What have you found works for you? Share your experiences in the comments section.

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Written by Janelle Ward



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