The bulk of the risk factors for dementia are utterly out of our control, like age and genetics. But growing scientific evidence says people can take measures to mitigate their risk of developing the condition, which impacts an estimated 50 million people around the world.
A large new study published this week in the journal Nature Communications points to one relatively straightforward prevention tactic: Get enough high-quality sleep when you’re in your 50s and 60s.
The study, which followed nearly 8,000 participants in the United Kingdom for 25 years, found that people who regularly slept for six hours or less in middle age had about a 30% higher risk of developing dementia than those who clocked seven or more hours per night.
How sleep may help decrease the risk of dementia
The new study is by no means the first to draw a link between sleep quantity and quality and dementia. Still, it is one of the largest to do so, according to Stephanie Stahl, a sleep disorder specialist with Indiana University Health.
“We know that getting insufficient sleep or getting poor quality sleep increases the risk of dementia,” Stahl, who was not involved in the new research, told HuffPost. “This is a larger-scale study, so it definitely adds value to the evidence.”
Researchers are still unraveling how exactly the sleep-and-dementia connection might come together, but they have several theories in mind.
“During sleep, our brain is allowed to clear toxins, and that includes beta-amyloid,” Stahl said. Beta-amyloid is a brain protein that can clump together and is often (though not always) a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Also, our sleep is essential for us to consolidate our memories,” Stahl added. In addition, “sleep disruption leads to inflammation and that can lead to clogging of the arteries, and that includes those arteries in the brain.”
The small changes that will help you get more sleep
The researchers behind the new study point out that more investigation is needed before they (or any scientists) can recommend specific and powerful “windows of opportunity” for intervention for sleep and dementia. So it’s not as though experts can say, “Sleep for X hours a night, for X number of years, and your risk will decrease by X amount.”
But sleep doctors like Stahl say there really is no downside to pursuing more high-quality rest — even if further research showed there is no direct connection between lack of sleep and dementia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults aged 18 to 60 get seven or more hours of sleep per night; adults aged 61 to 64 should clock seven to nine hours, and those 65 and up should aim for seven or eight hours.
“Getting seven hours versus six hours of sleep may not sound like a big difference, but if you’re one hour short every day, by the end of the week, you’re seven hours — or one full day — short.””
“As far as improving quality of sleep, there’s a whole host of things that can be done. Avoidance of alcohol is significant. Alcohol tends to cause sleep disruption and leads to reduced total sleep time,” Stahl said. “You also want to avoid caffeine for at least eight hours before bedtime.” She noted that caffeine and alcohol can reduce the amount of restorative slow-wave sleep people have throughout the night.
Another relatively simple — though not necessarily easy — change is to avoid electronics at night. Phone and laptop screens emit blue light, which can mess with sleep. If you can’t ignore your phone completely before bed, try adjusting its light in the settings or using your phone to listen to meditations or sleep-inducing sounds.
You should also try to get regular exercise, Stahl said. Research shows that regular training in the morning or afternoon can significantly improve sleep quality. Exercise can also reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia by about 30%.
As is often the case with preventing illness, healthy changes can impact the body and mind in many different but connected ways.
It’s never too late to get more rest.
While the new study may be compelling to clinicians and researchers looking to help their patients prevent dementia, it may also be a source of some alarm to people in their 50s, 60s, and beyond who may not have been able to prioritize sleep before.
But experts like Stahl emphasized that it is never too late to make changes and that sleep is cumulative.
“At any point, working toward getting adequate sleep is one of the most important takeaways,” Stahl said. Surveys suggest that less than half of Americans get the recommended amount of sleep every night.
“I always tell people that getting seven hours versus six hours of sleep may not sound like a big difference, but if you’re one hour short every day, by the end of the week, you’re seven hours — or one full day — short,” Stahl said. “Over the year, you’re now 52 days short of the sleep you should be getting.”