Chronic sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality have been linked to a number of health problems, but now a new study has identified one more potential risk, namely cognitive decline at old age, including Alzheimer’s disease.
While it has not been determined yet whether people who don’t sleep well are more likely to suffer from dementia as they get older, or whether it is a symptom of mental illness already on its way, scientists have long known that both sleep hygiene and mental well-being are closely connected.
For the study, the researchers scanned the brains of 70 participants, ages 53 to 91, looking for clusters of beta-amyloid plaques, proteins that when building up in the brain may cause the kind of damage associated with Alzheimer’s.
This is not the first time scientists have investigated the role of sleep, or lack thereof, for mental health. Studies on lab animals have suggested that the damaging effects can work both ways, meaning that sleep deprivation and sleep fragmentation can increase the levels of beta-amyloid, which in turn may be a factor in further sleep disturbance. The result may be a vicious circle with potentially dire outcomes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 50 and 70 million Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. In surveys conducted by the agency from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2007 to 2008, 23 percent of participants reported having difficulties with concentrating and 18 percent with remembering. Eleven percent said they sometimes had problems driving safely due to insufficient rest.
The effects of sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may be less apparent in younger people, but they are nevertheless real. Besides being more prone to engage in hazardous behavior when overtired, even young adults increase their risk of developing chronic diseases like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes as well as emotional and mental illness if they remain in a prolonged state of sleeplessness.
A person’s circadian rhythm — the cycling of sleep and wakefulness as well as body temperature and metabolism throughout the day and night — can get progressively unbalanced when sleep needs are neglected. In older adults, difficulties to maintain regular rest periods may increase. Especially the deep sleep stages, when the body does most of its healing and repair work of tissue, bones and muscles from daily wear and tear, lessen with age.
While, generally speaking, aging is often associated with shorter and lighter sleep, it doesn’t have to be this way. Older adults can benefit from the same sleep hygiene as everyone else. Eating a light dinner, avoiding alcohol consumption late at night, creating a calm, sleep-conducive environment before bedtime, lowering temperatures in the bedroom, and shutting off the lights are all part of it.
For more information on how to improve your sleep pattern, see these recommendations, http://www.timigustafson.com/2007/week-six/.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit www.timigustafson.com.