The Link Between Dementia and Lack of Sleep
Here at Kulala, we talk a lot about babies’ and children’s sleep.
But the truth is, children's sleep is only half the puzzle.
It’s important for your babies and children to get a good nights’ sleep for their own health—but also for you, the parents.
It’s something we’ve heard time and again when talking about sleep, particularly with new parents:
“My own sleep doesn’t matter. I’m a mother; I’m supposed to be making sacrifices for my children.”
“I’ll sleep once my kids are grown up.”
“It doesn’t matter that I’m not getting sleep so long as my kids feel loved.”
While parenting definitely requires sacrifices, we firmly believe here that it’s to the whole family’s benefit when everyone, from babies to children to parents, is getting the best night’s sleep they possible can. That’s why we’ve made it our mission to help!
Sleep Deprivation in Adults
We already know from numerous studies in the past that lack of sleep can lead to a host of health issues for adults, including:
- A weakened immune system
- Mood changes
- An increased risk of heart disease
- Memory issues
- An increased risk of car accidents due to drowsiness at the wheel
- High blood pressure
- An increased risk of weight gain
- An increased risk of diabetes
- Poor balance
- A low sex drive
That’s why a good night’s sleep is so important, for us all.
Of course as new parents, your sleep is going to be interrupted, which is normal. Our mission here at Kulala is to ensure that that lack of sleep is minimal—and most importantly, temporary.
In your 20s, 30s, and 40s, the typical ages of new parents, your body can handle a few months of interrupted sleep. But ideally, this sleep loss only happens when your baby is very young.
Once your child has reached the age and size when it’s appropriate to help them learn how to sleep through the night (babies should be at least 11 pounds, which a typical baby reaches at around 3 months of age, and should have slept for a 5-hour stretch at least once), we encourage you to use our tips to help them do so—for their own sakes, but also for you and your brain!
Check out our tips on how to safely and effectively help your child learn how to sleep through the night. And if you need more personalized help, download our app to speak with our sleep experts.
The link between sleep and cognitive decline
New evidence is coming out all the time about sleep and how it affects our bodies. We were intrigued by an article from the New York Times that came out this week about a study that finds a potential link between lack of sleep in middle age and dementia later in life.
The study tracked about 8,000 people in the United Kingdom, starting at age 50, and checked in with them over the next few decades of their lives. And an interesting, concerning link emerged. The study found:
- People who reported routinely sleeping 6 hours or fewer in their 50s and 60s were about 30 percent more likely to develop symptoms of dementia in later on in life (at an average age of 77) than those who reported getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night.
- The study was able to adjust for other behavioral factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, the participants’ levels of physical activity, body mass index, how many fruit and vegetables participants consumed, education level, marital status, and other pre-existing health conditions.
- While the study has limitations, namely that the sleep data is self-reported, a measure that isn’t always accurate, the findings still held.
The bottom line here: Short sleep shows an increased risk of dementia development. This is important because, as researchers say, it’s something people can relatively easily control.
How could lack of sleep cause dementia?
There are scientific explanations for why too little sleep could make one’s risk of dementia worse.
- Studies have found that levels of amyloid, a protein that clumps into plaques in Alzheimer’s, “go up if you sleep-deprive people,” said Dr. Erik Musiek, a neurologist and co-director of the Center on Biological Rhythms and Sleep at Washington University in St. Louis.
- One theory is that the longer people are awake, the longer their neurons are active and the more amyloid is produced.
- Another theory is that sleep functions to clear an excess amount of these proteins from the brain, and also limiting the production of them in the first place.
- Yet another theory says certain sleep phases can help with these proteins. So too little sleep means the brain isn’t able to do this as efficiently or as often.
All of this is basically to say that we need to sleep enough to protect our brains from neurodegeneration.
What our sleep scientist has to say
Kulala founder, sleep scientist Dr. Sofia Axelrod, says this link between short sleep and Alzheimer’s is not a surprising discovery. "This study confirms in humans what research in animals has hinted at in recent years: that we need sleep to not accumulate toxic substances in our brains—substances which contribute to the development of dementia and Alzheimer's," she says.
But I’m not in my 50s yet. Does it really matter how much sleep I’m getting now?
In short: yes, it does.
While this particular study in the New York Times focused on a sample group of people starting at age 50, "It is possible," says Dr. Axelrod, "that shortened sleep earlier in life, maybe even during childhood, has an impact on health later in life–specifically increasing the risk of dementia." There’s also the fact that good sleep is a habit we carry with us over the years.
Of course, as we stated earlier, as new parents, you’re going to be sleep deprived as your newborn adjusts to life outside the womb. This is normal and not a cause for concern.
But it would be to your advantage (and your child’s, and the whole family’s!) to ensure you’re doing everything you can to make sure your older babies, toddlers, and children are sleeping well.
Our Kulala app isn’t just about baby sleep; it can also help you with sleep problems in older children, such as when they refuse to sleep in their own bed, how to optimize sleep when children are sharing a bedroom, and so much more.
The basic things you need to remember when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep as an adult are:
- Having a regular schedule. This is important for your child, as children thrive on routine, but it’s also important for you. Try and start your bedtime routine at the same time every night. This routine should include a lack of blue light, (more on that below), turning off anything overly stimulating, like the news, and a calming, soothing bedroom environment.
- Matching this schedule to your circadian rhythm. Our bodies are naturally inclined to be awake at certain times and asleep at others. Going to sleep when it’s dark (and avoiding most artificial light after dark—more on this below) and waking up when it’s light is an easy way to do this.
- Avoiding stimulants close to bedtime. This includes caffeine, sugar, alcohol, the latter which reduces the amount of deep sleep we get, which we need to sleep efficiently and feel well-rested the next day. We should also be avoiding blue light (more on that below.) This goes along with circadian rhythm: when we’re getting ready to go to sleep, we don’t want to introduce anything to our brains that will wake it back up. All these stimulants make it harder to get to sleep, and stay asleep.
- Light. This is a big one. Light is made up of different wavelengths that correspond to different colors. In the morning, sunlight has a higher proportion of blue light, signaling our bodies it’s time to wake up. While in the evening, the blue light decreases as the amount of red light rises (which is why sunsets have pink, orange, or red light), telling our bodies it’s time to get ready for sleep.
Melatonin, the hormone released at night that regulates our sleep, has been shown to decrease in the presence of blue light. Artificial lights, like incandescent lightbulbs and the light from TVs, tablets, and smartphones, all release some amount of blue light. So it stands to reason to help us sleep, we need to eliminate blue light from our sleep environments.
But of course, you need some light in your bedroom as you wind down and get ready for bed. Dr. Axelrod suggests getting a red light bulb for your bedside lamp, and only using that late at night, as a signal to your body that it’s time for sleep.
This is one of the reasons why here at Kulala, we’ve developed a red light lamp (pre-order now, shipping this summer!) for use in your child’s bedroom (or your own.) There will inevitably be nights where your child wakes up, so in the case that they need something in the middle of the night, you can turn on this light without disrupting their circadian rhythm (and yours.)
The bottom line: Sleep is an essential function of life.
We’re always here to help when it comes to sleep, whether it’s your baby’s, toddler’s, older child’s, or your own.