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It’s not uncommon to hear people complain more about waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble getting back to sleep as they get older. Sleep experts have estimated that up 40 percent of seniors suffer from some type of sleep disorder, such as insomnia and sleep apnea. As if not getting enough sleep wasn’t bad enough, researchers have now discovered a link between disrupted sleep patterns and cognitive decline.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco’s Memory Disorder Clinic recently conducted a study of 1,300 patients over the age of 75 to assess the effects of disrupted sleep patterns on senior adults. The study examined the sleep patterns of participants for five years, and then measured their cognitive abilities at the end of the study. Researchers found that individuals who suffered from sleep-disordered breathing or sleep apnea were twice as likely to develop dementia as they got older.

Individuals who developed a disruption with their circadian rhythm were also at an increased risk of developing dementia. So were people who woke up throughout the night from tossing and turning.

It’s important to note that the study’s findings only show an association between sleep problems and dementia. Researches involved in the study were quick to point out that more exploration needs to be made into the field before confirmation of the data can be confirmed.

However, before senior start to believe that dementia is inevitable if they can’t sleep at night, older adults can receive routine screenings that can help to diagnose their condition. When diagnosed early, treatments can help them sleep better and potentially reduce their cognitive decline.

Researchers in the study highlighted a variety of techniques that can help individuals suffering from sleep disorders relearn how to sleep. One of the most effective strategies researchers discovered was to actually restrict the number of hours a person slept a night, and then slowly add 15 minutes a night until they reached a full eight hours. While this process can take up to one month to complete, researchers touted its effectiveness for re-teaching sleep habits to the body.

Another technique researchers used to help control sleep disorders was to limit the activities study participants were allowed to engage in while in bed. With the exception of sleep and sex, seniors were not allowed to use their bed for such activities as paying bills, watching TV, or reading in bed. Individuals who weren’t able to get to sleep in 20 minutes were required to get out of bed and engage in a relaxing activity. Once they became sleepy, they went back to bed.

Researchers also advocated getting rid of the alarm clock, which often acts as a constant reminder of how much time has past at night without us getting any sleep. Since looking at the clock requires you to open your eyes, lift your head, and take yourself away from transitional sleep, having a clock next to the bed can actually cause more instances of sleeplessness than necessary.

For seniors dealing with sleep issues, this study helps to underscore the importance of receiving a goodnight’s rest. Even though the link between dementia and sleep disorders is still tentative at this point, sleepless seniors should seriously consider talking with their doctor about ways to retrain their bodies to sleep at during the night.

Timothy Lemke is a freelance health writer. To read more of his work, visit the website of Dr. Matt Roane, a dentist in West Linn, Oregon.

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