Sleep is our body’s way of restoring its vital organs including the brain. But what happens when sleep is elusive over a long period of time? Research shows that the lack of consistent sleep can impact our brains in negative ways and increase our risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
A research review in Nature Communications recently concluded that persistent short sleep durations of six hours or less at age 50, 60 and 70, as compared to a normal night’s sleep of seven hours, was associated with a 30% increase in dementia risk. The study looked at research that followed participants for 10 years or more.
So, what happens in our brains while we sleep? “Sleep is a restorative function,” explained Jeremy Pruzin, MD, a memory care expert at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix. “While we sleep the brain repairs synapses and clears substances, including the beta-amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”
Poor sleep is also connected to depression which can result in less physical activity and unhealthy eating habits. All these factors are interlinked and together may have an impact on dementia risk.
“Science shows that somewhere in the range of 40% of dementia cases worldwide could be delayed or even prevented with long-term lifestyle changes,” said Dr. Pruzin. These include increased physical activity, smoking cessation, staying socially engaged, quality sleep and diet. “You can give yourself the best chance at avoiding cognitive decline and dementia by addressing these lifestyle factors over decades. Unfortunately, there other factors that also matter that we don’t have control over like the genes we receive from our parents.”
Behaviors that promote better sleep are collectively known as sleep hygiene. Dr. Pruzin shared some suggestions for getting a better night’s sleep, along with ways to address other lifestyle factors. But don’t take them all on at once. Identify one area you most want to change and start there.
“Over time, these changes will add up,” said Dr. Pruzin. “There is no magic bullet when it comes to lifestyle changes. It takes years to see results but, in the meantime, you’ll feel better about the changes you’re making now.”
For more brain health tips, visit AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health Resource Library.