Getting enough sleep - especially consistent, good-quality sleep - can be a challenge. Even worse, many aspects of our culture discourage getting adequate rest and push the narrative that it comes at the expense of productivity and is a sign of laziness. But did you know that poor sleep habits can have serious consequences on our health as we age? Many studies have now strongly shown that there is a link between sleep and dementia, an irreversible condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Dementia is a general term used to describe a decline in cognitive function and memory loss, especially in the elderly, and geriatric care professionals as well as families where an aging parent or relative is afflicted know the extent of its effects on the potential trajectory of a senior’s later years.
So, what is the link between sleep and dementia?
According to researchers, disrupted sleep patterns can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form of dementia. Alzheimer's disease is characterized by the buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain, which can interfere with cognitive function over time. One study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that people who experienced sleep interruptions had higher levels of beta-amyloid, a protein that is associated with Alzheimer's. The study also found that people who had irregular sleep patterns had lower cognitive function scores than those who slept well.
Generally speaking, sleep deprivation can also cause inflammation, which can further harm brain cells and potentially contribute to the development of dementia as well as to a myriad of short-term and chronic illnesses. Additionally, sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep, has been linked to a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
Other studies have also shown that getting enough sleep is crucial for preventing cognitive decline. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should aim to get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. This can help to reduce the risk of developing dementia, as well as other health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
It's important to note that sleep problems can also be a symptom of early-stage dementia. People with dementia may experience insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, or alterations in their sleep-wake cycle. If you or a loved one is experiencing sleep disturbances or other symptoms of dementia, it's important to seek medical advice.
So, how can we improve our sleep patterns and reduce our risk of developing dementia? First and foremost, it's important to establish a regular sleep routine. This means going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends. A healthy sleep habit can’t be expected to materialize overnight (pun intended) and can instead be developed over time, little by little. Most smartphones have a function on the clock app where it’s possible to set a recurring bedtime and wake-up time that meets your sleep goal (generally of 7 to 9 hours, as previously mentioned). In addition to getting enough sleep, it’s important to ensure quality sleep by going to bed in a sufficiently dark, quiet room with adequate temperature, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and foods with a high sugar content before bedtime, and avoiding screens directly before bed to promote restful sleep.
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