A New Study Links Sleep Deprivation with Dementia

Sleep deprivation is a major problem in the United States, as almost 50 percent of Americans report occasional insomnia and close to 25 percent struggle with sleep on a nightly basis. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have declared insufficient sleep as a public health epidemic. 

For years, sleep deprivation has been associated with raising the risk of numerous health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.  Now, a study recently published in the online edition of Neurology suggested that poor sleep may be linked to dementia.  

Investigators tracked the oxygen levels of 167 elderly Japanese men as they slept. Data was collected on each man until he died, which on average, was six years. Autopsies followed, looking for signs of Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia (the second most common type of dementia). Results suggested:

  • Men with lower oxygen levels in their blood while they slept were more likely to develop microinfarcts -- microscopic regions of cellular death in the brain -- than men with higher levels of oxygen in their blood.
  • Men who spent less time in slow wave sleep (formerly referred to as deep sleep) had fewer brain cells than men who did not sleep as soundly. Losing a significant amount of brain cells often leads to brain atrophy or “shrinkage”.
Although some brain microinfarcts and atrophy are a part of the normal aging process, researchers have noticed that these changes are much more common and severe among people struggling with dementia.

Experts believe that conditions that cause the blood oxygen level to drop while sleeping, such as emphysema and sleep apnea, contribute to microinfarcts. Since memories are processed during slow wave sleep, researchers reason that conditions that interfere with this stage of sleep, like sleep apnea, promote atrophy.   

Sleep deprivation can still lead to cognitive issues whether it is related to sleep apnea or another disorder.  If you are struggling to get a good night’s sleep, consider:

  • Starting or revamping an exercise program - your MDVIP-affiliated doctor can work with you to develop a fitness program that may help alleviate the symptoms of various illnesses, including sleep apnea and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. While physical activity has been associated with better sleep for some time, recent research suggests that it may help control insomnia; learn more about exercise and insomnia by continue reading this MDVIP Connect article.

  • Managing blood sugar - this is often easier said than done, as your MDVIP-affiliated physician may counsel you on dietary changes, suggest that you add some exercise into your daily routine and/or prescribe medication. Normal blood sugar levels are important because scientists have found relationships between diabetes and sleep deprivation, sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s disease.  

  • Controlling pain – results from the 2015 Sleep in America™ Poll identified pain is a major factor in sleeplessness. If pain is keeping you up at night, consult your MDVIP-affiliated physician to help you find the most appropriate course of pain management for you. 

  • Taking medications as directed - the World Health Organization reports only half of the people diagnosed with a chronic disease in a developed nation adhere to their physician’s recommended treatment. Your MDVIP-affiliated physician can review your medications and help you stay on track with taking them as directed. A poorly controlled illness can lead to sleep deprivation and additional complications. 

  • Limiting alcohol consumption - a glass of wine after dinner can be relaxing and may help you fall asleep. However, having too much alcohol can interfere with rapid eye movement (commonly known as REM). This phase of sleep is critical to feeling rested and when it is interrupted, it can cause you to awaken throughout the night. It is best to limit alcohol consumption as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men; further, avoid drinking several hours before going to sleep.

  • Eating a late night snack - a light, healthy bite may help you sleep better if it contains the following:
  • Tryptophan – a protein building block that increases brain serotonin
  • Serotonin – a neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy and relaxed and converts into melatonin
  • Melatonin – a hormone associated with sleep
For instance, try combining:
  • Cheese with whole grain crackers - dairy products like cheese are good sources of tryptophan and complex carbohydrates help tryptophan reach the brain.
  • Hummus with pita bread – chickpeas are another good source of tryptophan and are more effective when consumed with a complex carbohydrate.
  • Tart cherries with oatmeal – tart cherries are one of the few foods that contain melatonin and when mixed into oatmeal may help you sleep better.
  • As an added benefit, certain foods can help boost memory. To learn more, read this MDVIP Living Well article on nutrition and cognitive function.  

  • Getting help for depression and anxiety – if emotions such as sadness, hopelessness and stress interfere with normal sleeping patterns, let your MDVIP-affiliated doctor guide you towards the most appropriate treatment, which may include controlling your blood sugar, as new research from Harvard Medical School found a connection between diabetes, anxiety and depression.  

  • Discussing sleep apnea - many people suffer with undiagnosed sleep apnea because they do not recognize the symptoms. Consult your MDVIP-affiliated doctor if you:
  • Have been told that you snore
  • Tend to toss and turn a lot during the night
  • Feel exhausted when after waking-up and throughout the day despite getting seven to nine hours of sleep.
  • Learn more about sleep apnea by reading this article from MDVIP Connect article.

  • Adding meditation to your bedtime routine – some experts suggest meditating before bed, as it promotes relaxation and prepares the body for sleep. 
However, if you problem is deeper than relaxation, consult your MDVIP-affiliated doctor, as he/she has the time and the tools that can identify the root cause(s) of the problem and create a customized action plan to help you sleep better. If you or a loved one needs an MDVIP-affiliated doctor, click here to locate one.

Aug 19th, 2015
I can help a whole lot here. Check on your phones esp smart phones for binural beats. They use tones that entrain your brain. Therea countless free aps in google play and even one website thats about as specific as it gets. You must know what your goals are because they cater to the full range of people (saine to insaine!!!). Its called I-doser and their site is just that with a .com. Keep in mind that its for everyone and nobody's the same as the next. I found that thwy offer a method of control that works. Especially in this subject. Puts right to sleep and they even have one called sleeping angel and another called insomniac. Ibe made some mistakes with this myself so thats why I caution you to know your goals and use like a real drug because it really does provoke a frequency following responce in your brain by using tones that we cant hear. I read the reaearch 20+yrs ago and now find all these aps online and in the google play ap store. Its a crazy world and to each his own. Im just relaying information that could help people both get to sleep and have a higher quality of sleep. Headphones requird as its the difference in induced frequencies in each ear that make it work. Cant sleep in headphones....they will come off whenever you want to let nature take over. Hope I helped somone. CC
Mary Kay Dittberner
May 14th, 2015
Without any doubt, pain disturbs sleep several times a night.
Thanks for an excellent article.
1 Reply
May 18th, 2015
Greetings Mary Kay,

We appreciate you writing in to share how pain disturbs your sleep. Unfortunately, pain is one of the leading factors in insomnia. To help you handle your pain while you try to rest, we are providing you with more information on pain and sleep. Because we don’t know the cause of your pain, we included articles on pain caused from back injuries, fibromyalgia and sinus headaches. Many of the suggestions work for any condition. Feel better!

In Good Health,

Sleeping Positions That Reduce Back Pain

Fibromyalgia Pain at Night

8 Ways to Sleep Better with Sinus Pain and Congestion

Andrew DePristo
May 14th, 2015
As a practicing PhD scientist who has spent many years analyzing data in the general area of drug discovery and development, I am astonished at the misunderstanding of cause and effect and simple correlation.The first paragraph is correct (with my emphasis added) "For years, sleep deprivation has been ASSOCIATED with raising the risk of numerous health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. Now, a study recently published in the online edition of Neurology suggested that poor sleep may be linked to dementia." The question in all such associations is cause and effect or just simple correlation. Perhaps obesity makes breathing more difficult, prone positions more uncomfortable and any of a number of SPECULATIVE reasons for reduced sleep. Perhaps diseases such as obesity, diabetes, dementia interfere with sleep by causing STRESS, which is the most common CAUSE of sleep deprivation. The proper advice would be to see your physician for a complete physical if prolonged sleep deprivation is occurring because such deprivation is a MARKER for underlying health problems. Find out the underlying problems and treat these!
1 Reply
May 14th, 2015
Greetings Dr. DePristo,

Thank you for your feedback. We agree that people should be working with their physicians to figure out why they may not be sleeping and how to remedy the issue. We also agree with you that research does not prove anything; it merely suggests a correlation. However, because this particular study is shedding light on a potentially new piece of the dementia puzzle, we thought it was important to share with our readers. Insomnia is now considered an epidemic in the United States. And since sleeping can be so problematic, there are people who accept their insomnia and live with it, as opposed to trying to find a solution for it. The intent of this blog was to expose readers to another health issue that is associated with insomnia, provide suggestions to help them sleep better and encourage them to work with their MDVIP-affiliated physician.

In Good Health,
Karen LoBianco
May 13th, 2015
I find these solutions for sleeplessness very valuable. Relaxation tools are of a great help.
1 Reply
May 14th, 2015
Greetings Karen,

Thank you for replying. We’re glad that these tips worked for you. Since you find relaxing before bedtime helpful, below is a link from the University of Maryland Medical Center with additional information on relaxation techniques.

Relaxation Techniques

In Good Health,
Janet Englehart
May 12th, 2015
Do I have dementia???/
1 Reply
May 13th, 2015
Greetings Janet,

Thank you for writing in about your concern that you may be experiencing symptoms of dementia. Many people wonder about dementia if they have been experiencing some forgetfulness. And while some memory lapses are a normal part of the aging process, persistent memory problems may be a sign of a number of medical issues such as depression, thyroid problems and dementia. If you have been forgetful lately, it is best to discuss your concerns with your MDVIP-affiliated doctor, as he/she will be able to determine if your forgetfulness is age related or linked with another condition.

In Good Health,

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