Many, many people struggle to get a good night’s sleep, but did you know recent studies suggest a link between sleep and dementia? Poor lifestyle decisions, stress-related insomnia, snoring, the uncomfortable impacts of menopause in women, prostate issues in ageing men, arthritis pain, gastroesophageal reflux, and many more factors can compromise sleep quality, especially as we get older.
The ramifications of this can extend far beyond daytime tiredness and irritability.
Good quality sleep is important for optimal brain function, including memory function. Sleeping well is not just good for memory, either – it also reduces one’s risk of developing dementia.
While it’s long been known that people with dementia struggle to sleep well, more recent medical studies have found a distinct association to suggest that chronic, poor-quality sleep can also increase dementia risk.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is an irreversible condition where brain function is lost. It can impact cognitive processes including memory, problem-solving, personality, behaviour, language, and more. The brain cells fail to function properly, and they die off more quickly than they do in people without the condition.
In Australia in 2022 (source):
- Dementia is the second-leading cause of death overall
- Dementia is the leading cause of death for women
- Almost half a million Australians live with dementia
- Almost 30,000 people have young-onset dementia (from their 30s-50s)
- More than 67% of Australian aged-care residents have moderate to severe cognitive impairment
What Causes Dementia?
Dementia results from damage to or loss of nerve cells and their brain connections. It can affect people differently, depending on its severity and the part/s of the brain impacted. Most dementias are progressive and irreversible.
The most common dementias include:
- Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It can occasionally be caused by a gene mutation and hence can be hereditary. Most cases are not genetic but result from the development of protein clumps and tangles called plaques which damage healthy fibres and neurons in the brain. Memory, personality, and behaviour issues are extremely common.
- Vascular dementia is caused by damage to the brain’s blood vessels. More so than memory loss, common symptoms of vascular dementia include issues with concentration, focus, and sluggish thinking ability.
- Lewy Body dementia is characterised by abnormal protein clumps. Visual hallucinations, sleep issues, tremors, and many other symptoms can occur.
- Frontotemporal dementia occurs due to the breakdown of neurons and their connections in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Language, behaviour, and personality changes can occur with judgement and thinking ability impacted.
The root cause of dementia is not well understood, however, a lack of sleep from middle age may increase your risk of developing dementia. Men and women who get six hours or less of sleep per night in their 50s and 60s are 30% more likely to develop dementia in their old age.
Several sleep disorders have been directly linked to dementia:
- Insomnia – diagnosis for dementia are much more common in people who experience primary insomnia (as opposed to insomnia caused by drug use or depression). If you are under 40 and have primary insomnia, your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s disease rises significantly.
- Circadian Rhythm Issues – problems in the sleep-wake cycle are highly observed in people with dementia, including being sleepy during the day and wide awake at night. These effects directly compromise the ability to sleep properly.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) – obstructive sleep apnoea causes major sleep disruption and an array of health conditions and risks. Among these is a higher risk of developing dementia at an earlier age. Similarly, snoring causes sleep disruptions.
- REM Behaviour Disorder (RBD) – the muscles are usually paralysed during REM (dreaming) sleep; this is what prevents you from acting out your dreams. In RBD, you can move and are more likely to wake up. RBD is common in people with Parkinson’s disease or Lewy Body dementia, which is the second most common form of dementia.
- Sleeping too little or too much are both associated with higher dementia risk – i.e., fewer than 7 hours per night and more than 9 hours per night.
Who is Affected by Dementia? While most of us may expect that dementia is a geriatric disease, the risk of developing it rises from middle age. While it is rarely seen in people under 60, it does occur and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, for example, doubles every five years after age 65.
The Link Between Sleep and Dementia
People who have dementia commonly experience sleep problems. Lack of sleep can exacerbate dementia symptoms, and disturbed sleep is a distressing experience for dementia sufferers.
Habitually disturbed sleep may be an early sign of dementia. Scientists are unsure which comes first – sleep issues or dementia? In any case, the two most certainly do impact each other.
How could poor sleep cause dementia – and vice versa?
- Sleep is essential for the brain to learn and store memories
- Healthy adults experience changes to normal sleep patterns as they age
- Failure to get enough sleep causes plaques to build up, including in the brain
- Failure to sleep enough causes physical changes to parts of the brain
- The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) manages our circadian rhythms; people with Alzheimer’s disease often have damaged cells and decreased cellular activity in this area.
- Dementia is associated with a reduction in critical deep sleep cycles.
How to Improve Sleep in Middle Age
- See your doctor if you:
- Need to nap a lot during the day
- Have trouble falling asleep at night
- Wake up a lot through the night
- Wake due to chronic pain
- Are a woman experiencing sleep disturbances due to menopause
- Are a man experiencing sleep disturbances due to prostate issues
- Are agitated in the evening
- Don’t get enough sleep
- Have sleep apnoea
- Have restless leg syndrome
- Experience nightmares or disruptive vivid dreams
- Suffer from gastroesophageal reflux at night
- Implement lifestyle changes to promote better sleep and address snoring.
- Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
- Get regular exercise and spend 10 minutes a day in the sun.
- Maintain a healthy weight and avoid too much sugar, salt, and saturated fats.
- Avoid electronic devices and harsh lighting within 2 hours of bedtime.
- Limit napping, staying up too late, and sleeping in.
There is no known cure for dementia at this stage, however, management strategies and certain treatments can slow its progression. Maximising sleep quality is an important strategy to slow cognitive decline in people with dementia.
Stop Snoring and Sleep Better
If you snore, your sleep is not as good as it could be. Even if you don’t suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea, which is a potentially dangerous medical condition requiring proper diagnosis and management, habitual snoring poses a risk to your long-term health and longevity.
One of the best ways you can address your snoring issues and say hello to better sleep is to use SnoreMD This patented biomedically-engineered anti-snoring device is recommended by sleep specialists, doctors, dentists, and pharmacists. It is worn in the mouth during sleep and it opens the airways to help prevent or minimise snoring by gently and safely repositioning the lower jaw slightly forward.