Doing This at Night Could Spike Dementia Risk, New Study Finds

·4 min read

As we get older, the risk of dementia looms large. In addition to finding treatment for the condition, current research efforts are dedicated to understanding why dementia is so rampant—affecting 55 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This number is expected to rise with the aging population, reaching 78 million in 2030 and 139 million in 2050. We may not be able to cure dementia, but knowing the warning signs and risk factors can at least help us seek early treatment. One recent study identified a common nighttime behavior that could end up spiking your risk. Read on to find out what experts say could increase your chances of developing dementia.

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Previous studies have linked certain behaviors to dementia risk.

We all want to know what we can be doing to protect our brain health with age. It's generally understood that maintaining a healthy diet and getting some exercise can help overall health, but there are other daily habits that could have specific cognitive benefits.

For starters, you may want to reach for your toothbrush or floss, as the bacteria that cause gingivitis, Porphyromonas gingivalis, could be connected to the development of Alzheimer's disease. Per Harvard Health, findings published in 2019 suggested that the bacteria can travel from the mouth to the brain, release nerve-cell destroying enzymes called gingipains, and lead to memory loss and Alzheimer's. Brushing your teeth and flossing before bed is key to keeping your mouth and brain healthy—but once you get under your comfy covers, scientists say something else could also make your dementia risk soar.

This common bedroom habit could have larger health implications.

According to the American Thoracic Society, sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) is an umbrella term used to define interruptions with breathing at night, including heavy snoring, reduction in breathing (known as hypopnoeas), and cessation of breathing (known as apnoeas). Aside from just keeping your bed partner awake, snoring and other breathing conditions could actually indicate a higher risk of dementia.

When studying 1,399 older Australian patients with SDB, researchers linked these conditions to lower physical-related quality of life and impaired cognitive function—which generally precede a dementia diagnosis.

Findings were published in Respirology on May 17, including data from "relatively healthy" participants over the age of 70. Participants underwent a sleep study to determine whether they had mild or more moderate/severe SDB, and also completed evaluations to detect depression, other sleep disorders, quality of life, and cognition.

A total of 81 percent of participants had SBD, which was associated with the lower physical health quality of life and cognition, but not with daytime sleepiness, depression, or mental health quality of life. Investigators also noted that there was no significant association in differences between men and women, despite men being more likely to have SDB than women.

Investigators explored the direct connection between SDB and dementia.

Investigators from the present study noted that in addition to reduced cognitive function, SBD has been "inconsistently" associated with an increased risk of dementia itself. When evaluating SDB as a risk factor for dementia, researchers did find small yet significant associations between SDB and lower composite cognitive scores and lower scores on tests of psychomotor speed (the ability to detect and respond to changes in the environment).

Moderate or severe SDB was associated with lower scores on delayed recall tests (only for men) and in patients with mild SDB, it was also associated with lower scores on executive function. According to investigators, vascular dementia can be indicated by impairments in both psychomotor speed and executive function, and impaired delayed recall can indicate incident dementia due to Alzheimer's disease.

"While the magnitude of the lower scores associated with SDB for each test was small, collectively they may signify an increased risk of future cognitive decline and dementia," the researchers wrote, adding that results should be interpreted with caution. Researchers suggested that assessing both physical health-related quality of life and cognition in these patients may help identify treatments and targets for SBD, but they remain unsure if the treatment of SDB is a reversible risk factor for dementia development.

Previous studies have linked sleep disorders with dementia risk.

This is not the first study to link sleep disorders with dementia. In 2020, researchers at Monash University in Melbourne evaluated the relationship between brain amyloid burden, measures of sleep, demographics, and mood. The data, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, suggested that participants with severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—the most common sleep-related breathing disorder—had increased beta-amyloid in their brains, which is one of the key risk factors for developing dementia.

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