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Poor sleep linked to dementia and early death, study finds

“These findings contribute to existing knowledge that sleep plays a very important role, every night, in reducing our long-term risk of neural cognitive decline and all-cause mortality,” said study author Rebecca Robbins. , professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. who specializes in sleep research.

The link between sleep, dementia and premature death from whatever cause is particularly worrying, experts say, due to the sleep patterns of Americans and people around the world. According to the World Sleep Society, lack of sleep threatens the health of up to 45% of the world’s population.

Additionally, 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome, which can ruin a good night’s sleep.

The CDC calls this a “public health concern” because disturbed sleep is associated with a higher risk of diseases such as diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease and dementia.

Highest risks

The study, published recently in the Journal of Sleep Research, analyzed data collected by the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS), which conducts annual in-person interviews with a nationally representative sample of 6,376 beneficiaries. of Medicare.

Data between 2011 and 2018 was examined for the new study, with a focus on people in the highest risk category – those who reported having problems sleeping “most nights or most nights. “.

The sleep difficulties self-reported by study participants were then compared to each participant’s medical records.

Because the NHATS study collected annual sleep data, the new study was able to track the totality of sleep difficulties for each person over all eight years, instead of just capturing a snapshot in time. This was a strength of the study, Robbins said, because “sleep health can fluctuate over the years.”

Another strength of the study was the ability to distinguish the impact of having a little difficulty falling asleep versus frequent nocturnal awakenings on any risk of dementia and death.

“We found a strong association between frequent difficulty falling asleep and nocturnal awakenings and dementia and early death from any cause, even after controlling for things like depression, sex, income, education and chronic disease, ”Robbins said.

According to the study, people who had trouble falling asleep on most nights had an approximately 44% increased risk of premature death from any cause. Those who said they woke up often at night and had trouble falling back to sleep had a slightly higher risk – a 56% increased risk of premature death from any cause.

The risk of dementia was similar: People who reported having regular difficulty falling asleep had a 49% increased risk of dementia, while those who woke up often at night and had difficulty falling back to sleep had an increased risk of dementia. dementia by 39%.

But it’s the people who have a lot of problems falling asleep and staying asleep who have the highest risk of dementia or premature death from any cause.

Poor sleep linked to dementia and early death, study finds

“We found a 56% increased risk of dementia and an 80% increased risk of all-cause mortality over the next eight years in those who had concomitant difficulty sleeping – falling asleep or waking up,” Robbins said.

Complementary studies

High-quality sleep is essential to our overall health and cognitive reserve, according to experts.

A 2017 study found that healthy middle-aged adults who had poor sleep on a single night produced an abundance of beta-amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Beta-amyloid is a sticky protein compound that disrupts communication between brain cells, eventually killing the cells as it builds up in the brain.

A week of disrupted sleep increased the amount of tau, another protein responsible for tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease, frontal lobe dementia and Lewy body disease, according to the study.

Another 2017 study compared markers of dementia in cerebrospinal fluid to self-reported sleep problems, and found that subjects who had sleep problems were more likely to show signs of tau pathology, cell damage. brain and inflammation. This was true even when other factors like depression, body mass, cardiovascular disease, and sleeping pills were taken into account.
Not getting seven or eight hours of sleep a night is also linked to dementia, according to a study published in April. After following nearly 8,000 people for 25 years, the study found a higher risk of dementia with “six hours of sleep or less at ages 50 and 60” compared to those who slept seven hours a night. .
Poor sleep linked to dementia and early death, study finds

In addition, a short, persistent sleep duration between 50, 60 and 70 years was also associated with a “30% increased risk of dementia”, independent of “socio-demographic, behavioral, cardiometabolic and mental health factors”, including depression. , according to the study. .

What to do?

Medical science currently has no cure for dementia, but there are things you can do to lower your risk.

Quit smoking, drink only in moderation – if you drink at all – eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, staying mentally active, and controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol are all great ways to keep up. healthy brain and body, according to experts.

You can also solve all sleep problems by training your brain for better sleep. Experts call this “sleep hygiene” and suggest defining a bedtime routine designed to relax and soothe that does not include a television, smartphone, or other device emitting blue light at least once in a while. two hours before bedtime.
Poor sleep linked to dementia and early death, study finds

Other tips include having a comfortable bed and pillow, keeping the bedroom cool, quiet, and dark, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol for hours before bed.

Sign up for CNN’s Sleep, But Better newsletter. You will get scientific advice on how to sleep better tonight and every night.

Whatever you do, don’t stay sleep deprived: If you try these tips and you can’t relax, or if your sleep continues to deteriorate, be sure to contact your doctor or healthcare professional. some sleep.


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