A review of 51 different sleep studies found that people with sleep problems may have an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia. The studies covered people aged 50 and above in North America, Europe, and East Asia over a variety of periods ranging from several years to decades. While more studies and clinical trials must be done to determine why sleep affects brain health, the initial results make it worthwhile to take your sleep health seriously.
The Effects of Various Sleep Problems on Cognitive Health
Of all the people studied, those who sleep six to seven hours per night showed the lowest risk of cognitive decline. Many factors create an increased risk including:
- Insomniacs have a 27% elevated risk of cognitive problems.
- People with an insufficient amount of sleep, particularly those sleeping less than four hours per night, have a 25% higher risk of dementia.
- Those who experience sleep inefficiency, which is just too much time awake throughout the night, have a 24% increased risk of cognitive decline.
- Study subjects with trouble breathing at night (or sleep apnea) have a 29% higher risk of cognitive problems.
- More sleep isn’t a solution across the board, as people getting over 10 hours of sleep per night experienced a 15% increased risk of cognitive impairment.
Why is Sleep Affecting Cognitive Health?
The review of these studies was not intended to determine exactly how sleep problems cause cognitive decline or dementia. But, there is a basic understanding of how the brain works that can explain the link. For starters, our brain needs REM sleep to maintain itself. That is the time in our day that the brain gets to rest, recover, and recharge. Additionally, oxygen is a necessary ingredient for healthy brain function. The very common sleep disorder, sleep apnea, reduces the oxygen supply in your body (and brain) while sleeping. There are even studies that show the link in reverse, as one study of 580 patients found that those with cognitive impairment had more trouble sleeping.
How Can You Improve Your Sleep?
The great thing about the results of this study is that sleep problems are something you can make changes to improve today.
This one sounds easy enough, but we often lose track of our schedule and stay up too late to finish packing for a trip, meet a work deadline, or maybe just binge-watching a show on Netflix. Even with these results not being conclusive, there is enough evidence on the importance of sleep to our overall health and wellbeing to make it a priority.
Find Solutions to Environmental Factors
Begin paying attention to environmental factors that may be causing your sleep disturbances. For many people, simple solutions like earplugs to block out noise disturbances or getting a mattress topper or new pillow to ease discomfort at night are all they need to improve sleep.
Make Changes to Personal Factors
We have all heard that smoking, alcohol, and even eating too close to bedtime can have a negative effect on sleep quality. An easy way to take note of these personal factors is to keep a sleep log in a journal by your bed or in the notes app on your phone. (Or, use this handy sleep diary provided by the National Sleep Foundation.) When you wake up in the morning, write down how long you slept, how many times you woke up, and anything you did before you went to bed the night before. You may begin to notice a pattern that you can change to improve your sleep.
Consult with a Trained Healthcare Provider
If you are experiencing sleep problems but you’re not sure of the cause, bring it to the attention of a healthcare provider. Many dentists are trained in sleep medicine, and, in most states, can provide you with a home sleep test to take in your own bed. The test is then reviewed and diagnosed by a board-certified sleep specialist. This can bring to light the cause of your sleep issues and starts the conversation about a treatment plan that is right for you.