Struggling to fall asleep or staring at the ceiling wide awake in the middle of the night is not just frustrating; insomnia can wreak havoc on your health.
Defined as trouble falling asleep or staying asleep that happens at least three nights per week and lasts for at least one month, insomnia has been linked to a host of health issues from weight gain to anxiety. Research has also found links between insomnia and dementia.
A 2018 study published BMC Psychiatry found those with insomnia had double the risk of being diagnosed with dementia.
Researchers followed 51,734 adults who were diagnosed with insomnia between 2002–04 and a test group with 258,715 adults who did not have sleep difficulties. During the three-year follow-up period, 2.54% of those with insomnia developed dementia compared to just 1.34% of participants who did not have insomnia. Younger patients (under age 40) with insomnia had twice the risk of developing dementia.
The study is part of a growing body of research linking insomnia and dementia.
“Through early diagnosis and effective treatment of insomnia, there is the potential to possibly reduce dementia risk. But first we need to know more about the specific connections between dementia and insomnia,” says Keith N. Fargo, PhD, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association. “As the authors of this new publication state, it is still unclear exactly what underlies the association between primary insomnia and dementia. More research in this area is needed.”
Breno Satler Diniz, MD, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, co-authored a meta-analysis on the connection that appeared in the Journal of Psychiatric Research that reviewed five studies linking sleep difficulties with an increased risk of insomnia. He admits that while the connection is strong, the mechanism is not well understood. He points to studies showing that those with sleep issues have higher levels of inflammation; lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a protein in the brain that appears to protect against dementia; and increases in amyloid-beta protein, which has been linked to the loss of thoughts and memories that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease as potential explanations for the connection.
“[By] understanding that sleep problems increase the risk of dementia, and gaining more knowledge of the underlying mechanisms, we will be able to develop new treatments to mitigate the risk of dementia in this vulnerable population,” Diniz says. “Such information is helpful to raise awareness in clinicians and patients on the importance of treating properly sleep disorders.”
Given the prevalence of the sleep disorder — about 30% of adults report dealing with bouts of insomnia — and the potential for serious health consequences, significant efforts have been made to develop treatments.
Research shows cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga and medication are all effective treatments for insomnia. Maintaining good sleep habits such as regular sleep/wake times; sleeping in a cool, dark room; steering clear of electronic devices before bed; and avoiding alcohol and caffeine in the evenings can also help improve sleep, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If your sleep does not improve with simple sleep hygiene techniques, you should look for specialized care, for a proper assessment and management of sleep problems,” Diniz advises.