The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s, is a progressive disease that affects memory and other cognitive functions. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that right now, over 6.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), most of them over the age of 65. But not all seniors are at equal risk of developing cognitive decline—certain behavioral differences (as well as age, family history, and lifestyle factors) can greatly raise or lower your risk. Read on to learn one sleep habit that could more than triple your risk of Alzheimer’s, and what to do instead.
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As seniors get older, many find themselves struggling to fall asleep at bedtime, waking more frequently during the night, and rising earlier in the morning. Studies have shown that while sleep changes are widely considered a normal part of aging, changes in total sleep duration can also have negative consequences for some.
According to a 2021 study conducted by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and published in the journal Nature Communications, chronically poor sleep is considered a precursor for Alzheimer’s disease. “People who slept six hours or less per night in their 50s and 60s were more likely to develop dementia later in life,” the NIA, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), writes. This suggests that “inadequate sleep duration could increase dementia risk.”
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Many people might assume this means that they should get better sleep at any cost—making sleep aids appear a viable strategy for protecting cognitive health. Yet a separate study released at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in 2019 has identified a striking link between the use of sleep aids and Alzheimer’s. “There’s been a lot of research that’s looked at the association between sleep disturbances and risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease,” study author Elizabeth Vernon, a Utah State doctoral student told the AARP. “We were looking at whether these sleeping aids may also contribute to the risk.”
Having analyzed a group of 3,656 adults who were considered cognitively healthy at the start of the study, the research found that men who took sleep aids were 3.6 times more likely to later develop Alzheimer’s than those who did not.
“People don’t really consider the long-term effects of these medications,” said the study’s lead author, Yue Leng, MD, PhD. “We want clinicians to be more cautious about prescribing them.”
For women, the results of the study were more nuanced. In those who reported having a history of insomnia before taking sleep aids, the medication was linked with a 35 percent reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. However, in women who did not have a recorded history of insomnia who took a sleep aid for other reasons (for example, to make up for lost sleep associated with chronic pain), risk was nearly four times higher than in the non-sleep aid group—a finding which more closely mirrored their findings in men.
The study authors hypothesized that these differences could be due to differences in the type of sleep aid used, hormonal differences between men and women, or gendered differences in sleep patterns. “Females spend more time in slow-wave sleep, and males tend to spend more time in earlier sleep stages,” Vernon says.
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The study authors note that their study does not necessarily indicate that sleep aids cause dementia. More research is needed to prove that sleep aid medication—and not the initial lack of sleep itself—causes cognitive changes.
However, the study authors do advocate that those experiencing sleep problems consider sleep aids a last resort after trying other methods. “My advice would be to consider alternative interventions, such as sleep hygiene interventions or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia,” Vernon said at the AAIC (via KJZZ News). “This would allow for a sleep intervention without the possibility of negative side effects of some of these medications, such as falls and increased confusion.”
Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you’re taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.