Do you have trouble falling asleep? Do you fall asleep around 2 or 3 a.m. and sleep until noon? Or do you wake up at 4 a.m. and can’t fall back asleep?
Studies show insomnia does more than make the days drag — it raises your risk of dementia later in life. Heart disease, diabetes, obesity, mood disturbances, constipation, prostate cancer, and breast cancer have all been linked with poor sleep.
Poor sleep is a growing problem, as is dementia. Twenty percent of the population is estimated to sleep too little (less than 6 hours a night). Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder today, affecting 64 million people, and one in three people over 65 will die of dementia.
Researchers found a particularly strong link between poor rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and dementia. These people do not go into the deep enough REM sleep that induces paralysis. Instead, they have vivid, violent dreams that they act out through punching, kicking, screaming, and even jumping out of bed.
Sixty-three percent of people with this REM disorder develop dementia or Parkinson’s later in life.
The sleep wake cycle and dementia risk
Our circadian rhythm regulates our sleep/wake cycles — when we feel tired at night and alert in the morning. A healthy circadian rhythm is tied to daylight and darkness and governs sleeping and waking.
However, when this sleep/wake cycle becomes overly imbalanced, your risk of developing dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases increases.
This is because the area of the brain that governs the circadian rhythm, the hippocampus, also plays a role in short-term memory and learning. The hippocampus is the first area of the brain to degenerate in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Constant problems with your cycles of sleeping and waking could point to problems in the hippocampus and an increased risk of dementia later in life.
The sleep-wake cycle and dementia
Researchers have found the risk of dementia was higher in older women with weak circadian rhythms, and tracking circadian rhythms over time has been shown to predict cognitive decline in older adults.
Are you at risk for dementia later in life?
How do you know if your circadian rhythm is off balance? Look at whether you suffer from any of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Difficulty waking in the morning
- Not feeling rested after sleep
- Poor recovery from exercise
- Drop of energy between 4 –7 p.m.
Preventing dementia by supporting sleep
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to better regulate your circadian rhythm and lower the risk for dementia. A primary tactic is to regulate cortisol, an adrenal stress hormone. Studies show high cortisol from constant physical or mental stress degenerates the hippocampus.
Stress isn’t just a lifestyle issue. Stress is also be caused by blood sugar swings, inflammation food intolerances, hormone imbalances, and other metabolic issues. Inflammation in particular is associated with degeneration of the hippocampus. High homocysteine on a blood panel, a telltale sign of inflammation, is one way to determine whether inflammation is undermining your brain health.
Inflammation and dementia
A primary way to normalize the circadian rhythm and reduce your risk of dementia is to reduce inflammation. Your diet is the first places to start. This includes removing foods to which you are sensitive (gluten and dairy are among the more common), stabilizing your blood sugar, and eliminating processed foods.
Contact Dr. Labbe to learn more about an anti-inflammatory diet, improving sleep, and other tools to lower the risk of dementia.