A complicated connection between sleep and Alzheimer’s risk

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New research continues to come out of this week’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, and a few studies shine a spotlight on the complicated connection between sleep and dementia.

It’s known that sleep deprivation may increase one’s risk for Alzheimer’s, a disease that currently affects 5.8 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The latest research, however, shows that medications designed to help troubled sleepers catch up on those necessary ZZZs may also increase dementia risk.

“What we’re seeing reported at this conference is that we’re not sure that sleep medications are always a good idea for everyone who is suffering from some of the sleep difficulties,” said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“It could be the case that sleep medications in some people are helpful because they help you get more good sleep, which can be protective. But in other people these sleep medications may actually increase a person’s risk for cognitive decline.”

One report presented at the conference found that participants ages 70-79 without dementia at the start of a 15-year study who took sleep medications “often” or “almost always” were 43% more likely to develop dementia, compared to those who “never or rarely” took sleep medications. The increased risk was only observed among white adults.

Another study found that sleep medications may impact dementia risk differently in men and women. Researchers observed more than 3,600 adults 65 and older and found that men who reported use of sleep medications had a 3.6 times increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, compared to those who didn’t use sleep medications.

For women, the outcomes were dependent on sleep disturbances, said the study’s lead author Elizabeth Vernon: “Those women taking sleep medications and self-reporting a sleeping issue, such as insomnia, were at a 35.2% reduced risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Whereas, those women taking sleeping medications but not self-reporting a sleeping disturbance were at a four times greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Vernon said in an email to WTOP.

To complicate matters, Fargo explained that in people who already have dementia, poor sleep “actually worsens their cognitive symptoms; it worsens their thinking and memory.”

“And so the picture that’s emerging is fairly complicated right now, and what it tells us is that if you have sleep difficulties, you really need to have a good conversation with your physician to find out what’s the best way to handle that.”

Other research reported at the conference shows scientists and medical experts are closer to developing a blood test to screen for Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Current screening tools include a clinical diagnosis based on symptoms, medical history, etc., and an expensive brain imaging test that identifies the build up of amyloid, a protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

“So a blood test really would be leaps and bounds … for the simple reason being that you could do it virtually anywhere,” Fargo said.

However, don’t expect to see a routine blood test for dementia in your doctor’s office next week. Fargo said it may take time. The blood tests are entering clinical trials and aiding in additional research to help scientists better understand the disease process.

While there currently is no cure, experts say diagnosing Alzheimer’s and dementia early can help those with the disease navigate treatment options, minimize symptoms and benefit from clinical trials.

“Like any kind of disease, the earlier you catch it, the better outcomes you can expect once we have better therapies,” Fargo said.

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