Even in the short term, not getting enough sleep or poor quality zzz’s can keep people from performing at their mental best, whether it be more complex executive functioning or problem-solving or memory. The experience is universal – we’ve all had it: “We have a bad night’s sleep, we’re hazy in the morning, we may not be as sharp as we usually are,” says Michael V. Vitiello, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and geriatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “We may have some lapses in memory or we don’t process information quite as well.”
What’s more, it’s well-known by researchers, clinicians and caregivers that dementia can cause sleep disturbances. But, increasingly, evidence indicates that there may also be a link between sleep problems, which are more common with age – particularly when those sleep issues are persistent or chronic – and an increased risk of developing the progressive brain disorder Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Having insomnia or sleep apnea – which inhibits a person’s ability to breathe normally while sleeping – are risk factors for developing dementia.
Much still remains unclear in regards to whether or how sleep problems might impact one’s chances of experiencing long-term cognitive decline. Research hasn’t yet established, for example, that persistent sleep woes cause or contribute to the development of dementia later in life, Vitiello and others emphasize. But experts say that emerging data has provided at least a theoretical framework for why the two may be related – and suggest the relationship could be bi-directional: that not only can dementia disrupt sleep, but that not getting adequate, quality rest may raise dementia risk. What’s more, close study even provides a peek into the brain to possibly explain what might be behind the association.