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Researchers Probe the Connection Between Sleep, Dementia and Death

Aug. 12, 2021
A recent study underscores the importance of rest for our overall functioning and well-being.

If you aren’t prioritizing your sleep, you need to start.

Too little sleep has more of an impact on you than meaning you have to increase your caffeine intake the next day. It could make a difference in your mental health, mental faculties and ultimately your life.

And unfortunately, too many Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. One in three Americans don’t get the recommended seven or more hours of sleep each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A study published this spring in the Journal of Sleep Research found that older adults who have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep are at high risk of developing dementia and early death.  

Researchers analyzed data collected from the National Health and Aging Trends Study to study sleep difficulties using a nationally representative sample of 6,376 Medicare beneficiaries.

They focused on two specific questions:

  1. “In the last month, how often has it taken more than 30 minutes to fall asleep?”
  2. “In the last month, on the nights you woke up before you wanted, how often did you have trouble falling back asleep?”

Respondents chose their answer from the following options:

  • every night (7 nights a week)
  • most nights (5-6 nights a week)
  • some nights (2-4 nights a week)
  • rarely (once a week or less) and
  • never.

Researchers compared those who reported difficulty initiating sleep or difficulty falling back asleep “every night” or “most nights” in each study year to incidence of dementia diagnosis and all-cause mortality over during those 8 years.

They found was an increased risk of developing dementia during the study period among those who self-reported difficulty initiating sleep (49%) and those who reported difficulty falling back asleep (39%). Those who had trouble both initiating sleep and falling back asleep had a 58% greater risk of dementia.  

They also found an increased risk of all-cause mortality. Difficulty falling back asleep was associated with a 56% greater risk of all-cause mortality, and concurrent sleep difficulties were associated with an 80% greater risk of all-cause mortality—and that’s after adjusting for variables such as depression, sex, income, education and chronic conditions.

“With an ageing population, it is vital to identify the precipitating factors in the development and progression of dementia and, ultimately, all-cause mortality,” the researchers concluded. “Our data support the role of sleep difficulties as an important factor in the development of dementia and all-cause mortality.”

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