Insomnia in later life can be early warning for memory loss and dementia, study finds

There are few things more irritating than a restless night and sadly, as we get older, difficulty drifting off and getting a good night’s sleep only becomes more and more challenging. According to a new large-scale study, this frequent age-related insomnia could be linked to memory deterioration and dementia.

This conclusion was drawn by researchers at Concordia University after their sleep study of more than 26,000 older people found that, over a three-year period, a decline in memory and increased prevalence of dementia-related diseases correlated with those who had experienced frequent sleepless nights.

While this might seem to be bad news for the older age groups involved in this study (40-85), discovering this link between sleeplessness and age-related memory decline only places more importance on seeking medical treatment for sleep disorders – to slow or prevent the onset of age-related decline.

In the neurological publication SLEEP, study author Nathan Cross emphasised the research’s value for preventative medicine: “This highlights the importance of properly diagnosing and managing insomnia as early as possible in older adults.

“Adequately treating insomnia disorder might become an important preventive measure for cognitive decline and mitigate the incidence of dementia in later life.”

To draw these conclusions, the Canadian researchers split their study’s 2019 findings into three categories: those with no issues sleeping, some issues, and probable insomnia. Then, in their 2022 follow-up, they tracked whose sleep pattern or memory had deteriorated.

They found that those who reported a worsening in sleep quality, or a continuation of insomnia, were more likely to experience memory decline, or a memory-related medical diagnosis. Insomnia is classified by experts as when someone experiences roughly three nights of troubled sleep per week for three months.

In addition to a decline in memory function, those with troubled sleep were also more likely to suffer with anxiety, depression, daytime sleepiness, and breathing difficulty when sleeping. Low quality sleep was also more prevalent in those who smoke and people with a high BMI, which are also risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia.

The study also found that men with insomnia perform worse on memory tests than women, suggesting that older men may be at greater risk.

People who are suffering from damaged sleep can seek help from their GP, who should help them understand their sleeping habits and how they can nod off easier. Though it can be easier, it’s advisable to avoid repeat use of sleeping tablets.

Age UK says: “You could be referred to a psychological practitioner for cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which can help you to break patterns of thoughts and behaviours that may be contributing to your insomnia.

“In the short-term, you may be prescribed a course of sleeping tablets to help you catch up with some sleep, but these aren’t recommended for long-term use as they don’t tackle the underlying causes of insomnia and can be addictive.”