How Sleep Can Reduce Your Risk of Dementia

Posted by Darian Dozier on Jan 6, 2022 8:00:00 AM

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Did you know that you can sleep your way to better mental health? Sure that may not be new news, but there is increasing evidence that those who sleep better can reduce their risk of developing dementia and, eventually, death. There are multiple theories as to why this may happen, so this article will dive into the protective and risk factors, associated with sleep, of developing dementia. 

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is exactly what it sound like: you are deprived of sleep. If you have experienced sleep deprivation, you know how brutal it can be. Chronic sleep deprivation is when you are deprived for long periods of time – at least a month or more. This differs from acute sleep deprivation, that is short lived and often has a very specific cause. Chronic sleep deprivation will most certainly make life miserable for you, and can negatively impact those around you as well.

Sleep deprivation impacts your performance and health in all areas of life. Furthermore, it can have serious medical consequences, namely:

  • Shortened life expectancy
  • Much greater risk of disease and medical problems
  • Lower quality of life

To avoid sleep deprivation, you need enough time asleep. It’s not that simple though, there are many factors to consider:

  • We need different sleep at different ages
  • Our sleep patterns change as we get older
  • You are unique with your own unique sleep patterns
  • Our unique sleep patterns change in response to things like seasons, our daily activities, life events, etc.

You need to be aware what your needs are. Sleep deprivation occurs when you are not meeting your sleep-need.

How much sleep do you need:

There are some general guidelines for how much sleep is appropriate. Here are common recommendations for how much sleep you should expect to get based on your age [National Sleep Foundation]:

  • <1 year: 12-17 hours per day (more sleep for newborns than toddlers)
  • 1-2 years: 11-14 hours
  • 3-5 years: 10-13 hours
  • 6-13 hours: 9-11 hours
  • 14-17 hours: 8-10 hours
  • 18-65: 7-9 hours
  • 65+: 7-8 hours

Lifestyle Choices and Sleep

Lifestyle is a key factor to consider when talking about sleep. Introducing stimulants like coffee or cigarettes, watching TV late into the night, etc. can really impact your quality and quantity of sleep. Any of the following lifestyle choices will hurt your chances at getting a full night’s rest:

  • Drinking too much coffee throughout the day
  • Drinking coffee to late in the day
  • Drinking alcohol before bed
  • Using electronics and screens before bed (blue light inhibits sleep)
  • Foregoing sleep in order to play video games, party, etc.
  • Keeping a loud, messy, or lit room
  • Skimping on good sheets, pillows, or mattress

Ways to improve sleep time and quality - Anchorage Sleep CenterEven small changes to habits like reducing alcohol, screen time, and coffee can make huge impacts on sleep

Risk for Developing Dementia 

In a study at Harvard Medical School, more than 2800 individuals older than 65 were participating in the National Health and Aging Trends Study to examine the relationship between self-report of sleep characteristics in 2013 or 2014 and the development of dementia five years later.

They found that those who slept fewer than five hours a night were twice as likely to develop dementia and twice as likely to die. This statistic was compared to those who slept six to eight hours per night. This study also controlled for other factors that could have had an influence. 

Another study looked at almost 8000 participants from a different study and found that by consistently sleeping less than six hours, participants ages 50-70 had a 30% increase in their risk for developing dementia. 

The bottom line of these studies is that sleeping has a reputable link to developing dementia so it's imperative that you give your 7-8 hours to avoid some of the negative cognitive ramifications of not getting enough sleep. 

Lack of sleep may lead to dementia 

Not only can getting enough sleep protect you from dementia, however, not getting enough may lead to dementia. Sleeping very little during one's midlife may actually increase the risk for developing dementia later in life, with or without predisposing factors. 

In middle age, there are plenty of reasons for poor sleep including shift work, caretaking, insomnia, and responsibilities or just anxiety in general. Without learning the tips to control for these feelings, these individuals may find themselves chronically sleep deprived and at higher risk for developing dementia by the time they retire. 

Therefore, if you plan on having a healthy brain long-term, it's time to put down the work when It's time to go to bed and get the full 7-8 hours. 

It's been hard to nail down which came first, sleep deprivation that caused dementia or dementia that caused sleep deprivation. However, the more research showing that younger individuals are having less sleep and then developing dementia in their old age, the more than research is pointing towards a lack of sleep as being the problem.  

Flush your brain while you sleep

So why is sleep so important? That is still being researched, however there are quite a few theories. One of these is that beta-amyloids, which are proteins that are related to Alzheimer's have a chance to be "flushed" when you sleep. 

Beta amyloid function is unknown, however it has been determined as a way to protect the brain from microorganisms. At night, the cells in the brain shrink and that creates space for microorganisms to be flushed out. However, when you don't sleep, the cells don't shrink which means these proteins cannot be flushed, and therefore aggregate and become clumps that eventually turn into Alzheimer's.

Treating Sleep Deprivation

Treating sleep deprivation requires consistent, high quality sleep, potentially for a long period of time. Sleep studies show that getting one or two long nights of sleep does not remove the effects of sleep deprivation.

A few things you can do to maximize your sleep potential:

  • Create a calm, relaxing bedroom
  • Set a bedtime routine
  • Do not use screens (TV, laptop, cellphone) in the hour before bed
  • Limit coffee and alcohol consumption
  • Keep a sleep diary and look for patterns

Take Inventory

Sleep is a complex phenomenon. It’s not just hours of sleep that count, quality is extremely important as well. Because we are in the flow of day-to-day life, we rarely begin to notice our sleep quality until something is wrong. Just like we begin noticing our poor posture when our back starts hurting, we take notice of our sleep when we are having extreme difficulty staying awake at work, or the like. Here are some helpful tips to begin taking inventory of your sleep:


A sleep journal is an easy way to keep track of sleep. Write down what time you go to bed. Write down anything unique about your bed-time routine. For example, if you decided to drink a glass or two of wine that night, write it down in your journal. 

Then, in the morning, write down what time you woke up. Write down how you feel upon waking. Are you feeling energized? Tired? Like you got hit by a bread-truck? Write it down. Then, at the end of the week, look back at your journal and see if there are any patterns that show up.

Observe your Routine

We all have sleep routines that we perform in the evenings. Often it’s just brushing our teeth, putting on pajamas and going to sleep. Take stock of what your typical night looks like before sleep. Is there anything you are doing that can be tweaked to improve your chances of a good night’s sleep. For example, are you reading the news before bed? This may be increasing your stress levels and making it unnecessarily difficult to go to sleep.

Something as simple as reading the news in the morning may improve your sleep quality. Sleep deprivation leaks into every aspect of life, so it’s worth adjusting your routine to combat it.

Observe your sleep environment

Good sleep environments are critical for good sleep. Before bed tonight, take a look at your room. What emotions or perceptions do you get when you glance at your sleep environment? Is your room messy with clothes on the floor? How does it smell? Are there lights from the window? Just take a moment to observe your room, and if there are any aspects that don’t lend themselves to quality sleep, then take note and change them.

Beating sleep deprivation is a game of details. Each detail adds up to either support healthy sleep, or support a state of sleep-deprivation. Knowing a bit more about the causes of sleep deprivation, the risks of sleep deprivation, and some potential improvements that can be made all contribute to a better night’s sleep and a better life.

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