Sleep and Dementia

We all know how bad our thinking can be when we don’t get a good night’s sleep, but over time poor sleep may put us at higher risk of more profound cognitive problems, like dementia.

Recent studies presented at the Alzheimer’s conference this summer show that sleep disruptions of different kinds– like sleep apnea (abnormal periods of obstructed breathing or stopping breathing), decreased time sleeping, or waking up often– can lead to real cognitive deficits.

Dr. Kristine Yaffe, from Univ of California, San Francisco, directs a clinic that evaluates and treats patients with memory disorders.  Her research makes an important contribution because it looks at direct measures of sleep by observing people’s sleep quality and their subsequent development of cognitive problems 5 years later. Many other studies have looked at people’s self-report of how they sleep, which is notoriously inaccurate, and the concurrent presence of memory or cognitive problems.  Such an approach does not address the question of which came first, the cogntive problem or the sleep problem, but Dr. Yaffe’s work suggests that in some people sleep problems may come first.  Persons with disordered breathing (like sleep apnea) had more than 2 times the risk of dementia later on.

Let’s not all stay up even later worrying that by not getting good sleep we are imperiling our brains.  The lesson is yes, get good sleep (that’s an order)!  And for us that take care of patients, we should be asking them about their sleep and daytime functioning– daytime sleepiness can be an indicator that someone’s sleep at night is not adequate– and get them tested for sleeping problems.  Many sleep problems can be treated, and doing so may save precious brain function.

Other links:

NPR interview with Dr. Yaffe and news story:

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About agannac

Agannac is an internal medicine trained physician, currently doing further training in geriatric medicine. She enjoys working with vulnerable elderly in the health care setting and thinking about ways to improve health care for the most socially and medically complex. She hopes to make innovations from around the world relevant in the US.

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