Less REM Sleep Tied to Greater Risk of Dementia

People who get less rapid eye movement (REM) sleep may have a greater risk of developing dementia, according to a new study. REM sleep is the sleep stage when dreaming occurs.

When I was at Arizona State University, I studied the “Psychology of the Eye” as I endeavored to become a Psychologist. At that time and still today science does not understand brain systems. We knew then that the healthy brain needs REM sleep. We knew then that if a person were awakened every time they entered REM sleep they would see hallucinations when they were awake. Today we are encountering large numbers of the aging population that see vivid hallucinations, when awake, who are referred for dementia treatment. I always wondered if there was a relation between the amount of REM sleep and dementia. Thanks to a recent study by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), we have some data that does show a direct correlation. There are five stages of sleep. Stage one is light sleep. Stage two is when the body begins to prepare for deeper sleep, including stages three and four. Stage five is REM sleep. During this dream stage, the eyes move rapidly and there is increased brain activity as well as higher body temperature, quicker pulse and faster breathing. The first REM stage occurs about an hour to an hour-and-a-half into sleep and then recurs multiple times throughout the night as the cycles repeat. 

After reading the text of the study, I now understand how important REM sleep is to my health now and for my risk of developing dementia. The researchers found that after adjusting for age and sex, there are links between both a lower percentage of REM sleep and a longer time to get to the REM sleep stage and a greater risk of dementia. In fact, for every percent reduction in REM sleep, there was a 9 percent increase in the risk of dementia. They found that People with 17 % or less REM sleep risk was nine times greater for each percentage less than those with 20% or more. Lack of other types of sleep did not affect the risk of developing dementia. 

 REM sleep is observed even in unborn babies in the womb. With this study in mind and knowing that dementia disease starts 15-20 years ahead of symptoms could prevention of dementia be as simple as getting a good night’s rest that includes 17% or more REM sleep. 

I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on television but I can tell you what I do for my personal health. I wear a Fitbit HR that measures the five levels of sleep. If it is accurate, my REM sleep was less than optimum. Therefore, I took a proactive position and started taking melatonin before sleep every night. I noticed an immediate increase in REM sleep and related mood during the day. Time will tell if this is effective but I am not aware of any contraindications or side effects. The study is available online and I recommend everyone including seniors to get a good night’s sleep and measure their sleep cycles in the same way you measure calories to track your health.

In summary, as we age our sleep, especially our REM sleep, is affected by medications, environment, lack of exercise, and fear of the future. Lack of sleep can increase your risk of certain health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and even depression. Other patterns in sleep can be caused by a change in circadian rhythm. This is the time our body is sleepy or awake and alert throughout a day.

Because seniors’ sleep cycles tend to be interrupted more, their lack of REM sleep is more prevalent and ultimately, brain health may be affected often expensed as memory loss and confusion (mild cognitive confusion).

There have been some common correlations where some people with neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are more likely to have sleep disturbances. As you age, it’s important to choose healthy daytime habits such as socialization, eat a healthy diet, exercise, and create an evening routine that will allow the body to regenerate during sleep. Senior communities are an excellent way to adopt healthy daytime habits. Currently, it is common and helpful to utilize smart devices and apps to collect and analyze information related to sleep patterns. It is also possible to stimulate melatonin production by diet and supplementation. Before making any modifications always consult you, a medical practitioner. 

Story Source: American Academy of Neurology (AAN). “Less REM sleep tied to a greater risk of dementia.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 August, 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170823185411.htm>. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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