women with insomnia in bed watching the sun come up may be at greater risk for insomnia

Your insomnia may be increasing your risk for dementia

By Jason Wooden, PhD | June 8, 2018

We’ve all woken up with that groggy feeling in the morning after a bad night of sleep.  It sure makes it hard to focus and get things done during the day, but did you know that your insomnia could be hurting you down the road?

People with dementia have significant declines in cognitive abilities.  While symptoms can vary, they often have memory issues and find it harder to focus making it more difficult to perform everyday tasks. 

According to the World Health Organization, there are over 7 million new cases of dementia every year.

Known risk factors for dementia include high cholesterol, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, depression, smoking, and alcohol use.  However, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, age is the biggest risk factor.  Your risk for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, doubles every five years once you hit age 65.

Recently, a research study has highlighted a new risk factor for dementia – primary insomnia.  (This is insomnia that is not caused by other underlying medical or psychiatric conditions.)

In the study, Taiwanese researchers compared over 50,000 primary insomnia patients with a control group of 58,715 individuals.

After a 3 year follow up, they found that the insomnia patients had double the risk for developing dementia.  The risk for younger patients was even higher.

The researchers concluded that primary insomnia can increase the risk for dementia.

While these findings agree with other studies that have found that people who get less deep REM sleep have a greater risk for dementia, they don’t explain how insomnia affects cognitive decline down the road.

Insomnia has been linked to other age-related conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

However, what could be the link with dementia?

Dementia is a disease process in which the brain cells degenerate.  One possibility is the growing evidence that sleep is essential for maintaining a healthy brain.

Some research suggests that during sleep the brain washes out harmful proteins and waste products.  Of note is the Beta-amyloid protein which has been found to clump together and disrupt the function of neurons in people with Alzheimer’s.

Researchers have recently found that just one night of sleep deprivation can increase the buildup of Beta-amyloid in the brain.  Taken all together, what this could mean is that insomnia over the long-term can lead to the build up waste products like Beta-amyloid which damage brain cells and further hasten cognitive decline.

While it’s not clear why younger patients have an even greater risk for dementia after just 3 years, the Taiwanese study does highlight the importance of sleep given that insomnia has been linked to so many other health issues.

Nonetheless, if you want to stay mentally sharp down the road, be sure to get great sleep every night.

And remember when it comes to sleep, it not just how long you sleep but also how well.

4 Tips to Stay Mentally Sharp:

1) Get great sleep every night
As discussed in this article, there’s growing evidence that restorative deep sleep is critical for maintaining a healthy brain.
2) Exercise regularly
Regular physical activity can help promote blood flow to the brain which can help keep it healthy, support its function, and reduce the risk of other conditions such as hypertension that have been linked to dementia.
3) Eat a healthy diet
Avoid saturated and trans fats, eat a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.  A diet rich in antioxidants is thought to help protect the brain and lower the risk for cognitive decline.
4) Stimulate the brain
Challenge your brain everyday with games and other activities.  This is thought to help because the brain is being stimulated to make more connections.  Education has been found to be the strongest predictor of mental capacity as people age.
man playing a piano which can help reduce the risk for dementia
two older men playing chest in the park at a picnic table which may help reduce their risk for dementia
1. Risk of dementia in patients with primary insomnia: a nationwide population-based case-control study.  BMC Psychiatry, 2018, volume 18, page 38.

2. Sleep architecture and the risk of incident dementia in the community. Neurology, 2017, volume, 89, issue 12, 1244-1250.

3. A Paravascular Pathway Facilitates CSF Flow Through the Brain Parenchyma and the Clearance of Interstitial Solutes, Including Amyloid Beta.  Science Translational Medicine, 2012, volume 4, issue 147.

4. Beta-Amyloid accumulation in the human brain after one night of sleep deprivation.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A, 2018, volume 115, issue 17, pages 4483-4488.

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