A new study by researchers at the University of California San Francisco found that older adults with sleep-disordered breathing or sleep apnea appeared to be more than twice as likely to develop dementia later in life.
Now, before you freak out let me add the caveat — the study merely found an association between sleep problems and dementia. They don’t know if sleep problems caused dementia or are just an early symptom of dementia. Much more research will be needed to even confirm the findings, let alone prove a connection.
However, it shouldn’t be surprising since sleep is so closely tied to health and well-being. In a great news story this morning on the cognitive decline/sleep study, NPR reported that 40 percent of older adults suffer sleeping problems such as sleep apnea and insomnia. Here at ChangingAging.org, Dr. Bill Thomas, a geriatrician by training, often fields health and aging questions on the blog and trouble sleeping is a top question.
But NPR reports that there is a silver lining to this issue. Many older people may simply be having trouble adjusting to natural changes in their circadian rhythm. NPR explained in their report:
Sleep is controlled in part by our core body temperature, which drops at night when we get sleepy and rises in the morning, and that’s when we wake up.
These patterns change throughout our lives. Teenagers’ body temperature drops late in the evening, so they don’t get tired till around midnight and don’t naturally wake up till late morning, causing many a parent to complain that their teen is sleeping the day away. In fact, they’re simply following their biological clock.
For older adults, it’s the opposite. Their body temperature drops really early in the evening, around 8 p.m., and rises really early in the morning, around 4 a.m. If your lifestyle allows it, [sleep expert and Psychologist] Sonia Ancoli-Israel says it’s just fine to go to bed early and get up at 4 a.m.
If evening engagements are too important in your life to go to bed earlier, Ancoli-Isarel suggests exposing yourself to more light, especially late in the day. “Light is the strongest cue our body has to know when to go to sleep and when to get up. Lots of light exposure during the day helps us have a strong biological clock,” she told NPR.