Adults over 45 with insomnia may face a higher risk of memory loss

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Getting enough sleep can become more difficult with age due to brain and hormonal changes, which research shows can affect cognition. Real People Group / Getty Images
  • Sufficient sleep is crucial for maintaining mental and physical well-being.
  • A new study by Canadian researchers has found that insomnia may lead to an increased risk of memory loss in adults over 45.
  • For many people, getting enough sleep can become more difficult as they age due to brain and hormonal changes..
  • Lifestyle changes, therapies, sleeping pills, and medications can all help promote quality sleep.

A good night’s rest allows the body and brain to regenerate – and new research has shown how important getting enough sleep can be for preserving cognitive function.

A Canadian study, recently published in the journal SLEEPanalyzed data from over 26,000 adults between the ages of 45 and 65 that were collected over 3 years.

In 2019, participants completed a sleep and memory questionnaire and underwent neuropsychological testing. The same questions and tests were then repeated in 2022.

Researchers found that those who had no insomnia symptoms in 2019 but had developed insomnia symptoms or probable insomnia disorder (PID) by 2022 were more likely to report memory decline subjective. Those who had symptoms of insomnia in 2019 and became PID in 2022 themselves reported greater problems with memory loss.

Memory tests also revealed that men with insomnia disorder performed worse than women with the disease.

“While this doesn’t mean their memory was actually worse, it puts them at increased risk of developing memory problems in the future,” Nathan Cross, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the Laboratory of Sleep, Cognition, and of neuroimaging in Montreal and co-lead of the study, explained to Healthline.

While previous research has explored the effects of sleep on cognitive function, Cross said the new study differed in one key aspect.

“A lot of research has used very focused and detailed methods in small sample sizes or very one-dimensional general measures (e.g. questions like ‘how long do you sleep?’ or ‘how well do you sleep?’ ) populations,” he said.

“We had access to detailed information on the sleep habits of a large group of Canadian adults. [This] allowed us to group individuals according to the severity of their sleep disorders: insomnia disorders, insomnia symptoms, or healthy sleepers. This has never been done before.

Cross pointed out that the study investigated the impacts of insomnia disorders — not just those of a poor night’s sleep.

“Insomnia is a recognized psychological disorder with a set of diagnostic criteria,” he said.

The criteria for insomnia disorder are defined by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), and include difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep and early morning awakening with an inability to return to sleep.

If one or more of the DSM-5 criteria are met and sleep difficulties have been present for at least 3 months, an individual may be diagnosed with an insomnia disorder.

A diagnosis, Cross added, “includes recognition that sleep problems impact daytime functioning.”

In fact, the impact of insomnia on a person’s physical and mental abilities can be significant.

“There is a large literature showing a decline in psychophysiological performance when people don’t get enough sleep,” Brian A. Moore, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Kennesaw State University and adviser for Momentous, shared with Healthline.

“For example, studies of sleep deprivation in military personnel found reductions in performance when personnel slept less than 7 hours per night,” he said.

How sleep impacts the brain

During sleep, Cross explained, the brain is busy “eliminating toxic waste that accumulates during the day and changing the connections between brain cells to save energy.”

“It is also associated with reinforcing memories learned during the day, reinforcing them so that we can extract meaning and connections between different experiences,” he added.

Moore said a lack of sleep also means the body isn’t able to fully recharge, so energy is spread more thinly.

“When our bodies experience prolonged stressors (like insufficient sleep), other resources have to take over,” he explained. “Our internal resources are not infinite – and when we don’t get enough sleep, there is often a degradation in performance like memory or reaction times.”

The Canadian study focused on sleep in older adults and noted that many reported worsening sleep patterns over the 3-year research duration.

And for many people, the ability to get quality sleep can start to decline as they get older.

“We specifically see issues with maintaining sleep in [older adults]Chelsie Rohrscheib, PhD, neuroscientist and chief sleep expert at Wesper, told Healthline.

“The brain’s ability to control and maintain sleep may decline with age. “That’s because brain function in general declines as connecting cells, called neurons, age and become dysfunctional.”

A hormonal change can also impact the quality and duration of sleep.

“An aging brain may lose the ability to regulate hormones such as melatonin and cortisol, and neurotransmitters such as GABA, which are essential for healthy sleep,” Rohrscheib noted.

Moore noted that other elements may also play a role in sleep quality as people age.

“There are biological, social and psychological factors that differentially but dynamically influence cognitive decline,” he said. “It’s safe to say that over time, chronic sleep dysfunction will contribute to downstream health issues, and immediate intervention is always best.”

Whether you suffer from insomnia, trouble sleeping, or just want to get better rest at night, there are steps you can take to improve the quality of your sleep.

Adopt good sleep hygiene

You may have heard the phrase ‘sleep hygiene’ – and according to Rohrscheib, it’s important to develop a regimen you can stick to.

“Pay close attention to the actions you take during the day and how that might affect sleep later,” she said. “This includes not consuming caffeine too late in the day, not using electronic devices before bed, and sticking to a strict sleep schedule.”

Try supplements or medications

Sleeping pills may be particularly beneficial for promoting sleep, especially in the elderly.

“Studies have shown that seniors produce less melatonin [the sleep hormone] than what is needed for sleep,” Rohrscheib explained. “Other prescription medications may also be needed,” she added.

In any case, always ask your doctor for advice before taking any new supplement or medication.

Consider other health issues

Various health conditions can contribute to insomnia symptoms, and treating them can help improve sleep quality.

Rohrscheib noted that conditions such as “chronic pain, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or mental health disorders” – many of which become more common in older people – can all negatively impact quality. of your sleep.

Train your body and brain

Experts like Rohrscheib agree that exercise and mental stimulation are important for good quality sleep.

“Older people should get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day and devote a significant part of their day to mental activities, such as puzzles or reading,” she said.

Try cognitive therapies

Sometimes insomnia symptoms can occur because the mind is racing worrying that you are not sleeping.

In these cases, relaxation exercises like guided imagery can help promote sleep.

Sleep has long been associated with cognitive function, and the new research further highlights its potential role in relation to memory loss.

However, Moore explained, it should be noted that the levels of memory loss in this study were self-reported – and, “in some cases, this may be an ‘expectation effect’ in which people anticipate to have a bad memory as you get older.”

Although more clinical research on the link between insomnia and memory loss is still needed, the results of the Canadian study still offer important lessons.

“The results show that it’s important to take sleep issues seriously and discuss them with your doctor,” Cross said.


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