Needing Less Sleep May Be a Dementia Marker (But There’s Good News)

It’s well-known that many elderly people appear to suddenly need less sleep. A senior may get up much earlier than he or she did as a younger person, and/or may go to bed later or awaken during the night for periods without seeming to suffer the effects of exhaustion the next day.

It’s apparent that in general, older people simply don’t need as much sleep (and there’s some science to back this up).

Now, in a reverse of an old truism, scientists have uncovered a connection between a need for more than nine hours of sleep per night in seniors, and an increased dementia risk.

But it’s not all gloom and doom…read on.

Making the Connection

Researchers interpreting results from the Framingham Heart Study uncovered something surprising: study participants who reported a greater need for sleep were nearly twice as likely to develop dementia, including dementia due to Alzheimer’s Disease.

The amount of sleep was self-reported, throwing one question into the equation: how accurate is self-reporting? Another question looming above the study is whether correlation really means causation, and if so, which causes or increases the risk of which (the dementia, or the increased sleep).

The Education Factor

It’s not all bad news, apparently: people without a high school degree were more likely to see this combined effect of increased sleep/dementia. That means that potentially, education could have a protective element to the brain, though such a supposition is a leap and requires further research.

If there is such a tie-in, mental exercises such as learning something new might have positive effects against the onset of brain degeneration, but more research is needed, study critics warn.

If You Sleep Too Much

Sleeping too much can be as much a warning as sleeping too little. Too much sleep or waking tired after a normal amount of sleep (7-9 hours) in any adult age group can be a red flag, but don’t panic.

Instead, see your doctor. There can be many reasons for a sudden increase in the need for sleep. If you’re worried about the dementia tie-in, mention this to your doctor. She can guide you on what tests to take and how to predict whether you’re at risk.

Working Out Your Brain

In the meantime, it can’t hurt and can only help to try to stay mentally sharp and alert.

Working out your body is easy, and it’s easy to see results: if you’re stronger, healthier and look better, your workout is probably, well, working. But what about “working out” your brain?

This is a difficult question, as most “brain games” studies have been done on rodents; when humans are studied, this is often accomplished by self-reporting, which can be tricky.

On the other hand, findings such as the education level tie-in above are promising, and tantalizing.

In general, learning something new appears to stretch the brain’s capacity. So too does anything with a visual/spacial element.

Ask your doctor what she recommends as a “brain games” schedule if you’re looking to get, or stay, sharp.