Poor sleep in old age increases risk of cognitive impairment

May, 2012

Two recent studies add to evidence that sleeping poorly is a risk factor for several disorders in old age, including mild cognitive impairment, Parkinson’s, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Older adults who sleep poorly react to stress with increased inflammation

A study involving 83 older adults (average age 61) has found that poor sleepers reacted to a stressful situation with a significantly greater inflammatory response than good sleepers. High levels of inflammation increase the risk of several disorders, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and have been implicated in Alzheimer’s.

Each participant completed a self-report of sleep quality, perceived stress, loneliness and medication use. Around 27% were categorized as poor sleepers. Participants were given a series of tests of verbal and working memory designed to increase stress, with blood being taken before and after testing, as well as three more times over the next hour. The blood was tested for levels of a protein marker for inflammation (interleukin-6).

Poor sleepers reported more depressive symptoms, more loneliness and more perceived stress compared to good sleepers. Before cognitive testing, levels of IL-6 were the same for poor and good sleepers. However, while both groups showed increases in IL-6 after testing, poor sleepers showed a significantly larger increase — as much as four times larger and at a level found to increase risk for illness and death in older adults.

After accounting for loneliness, depression or perceived stress, this association remained. Surprisingly, there was no evidence that poor sleep led to worse cognitive performance, thus causing more stress. Poor sleepers did just as well on the tests as the good sleepers (although I note that we cannot rule out that poor sleepers were having to put in more effort to achieve the same results). Although there was a tendency for poor sleepers to be in a worse mood after testing (perhaps because they had to put in more effort? My own speculation), this mood change didn’t predict the increased inflammatory response.

The findings add to evidence that poor sleep (unfortunately common as people age) is an independent risk factor for cognitive and physical health, and suggest we should put more effort into dealing with it, rather than just accepting it as a corollary of age.

REM sleep disorder doubles risk of MCI, Parkinson's

A recent Mayo Clinic study has also found that people with rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD) have twice the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment or Parkinson’s disease. Some 34% of those diagnosed with probable RBD developed MCI or Parkinson's disease within four years of entering the study, a rate 2.2 times greater than those with normal REM sleep.

Earlier research has found that 45% of those with RBD developed MCI or Parkinson's disease within five years of diagnosis, but these findings were based on clinical patients. The present study involved cognitively healthy older adults (70-89) participating in a population-based study of aging, who were diagnosed for probable RBD on the basis of the Mayo Sleep Questionnaire.

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