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Lifestyle choices, diet and exercise are all known variables that can lead people down a path of good or poor health.

Now, a new study, conducted by scientists at the University of London, dives into the possible effects of sleep patterns early in life and the role it can play in heath outcomes decades later, particularly as it relates to the onset of dementia.

Sleep disorders can be a feature of dementia, but the larger question is whether sleep dysregulation early in life means an increased likelihood of developing dementia later in life. Thousands of individuals over the age of 50 took part in the extensive study, which is backed by the National Institute of Aging. Tracking participants over the span of decades, researchers wanted to learn about their sleeping patterns and how many hours of a good night’s rest they got.

To ensure the accuracy of self-reporting, participants wore accelerometers that precisely captured sleep times. As the study progressed over the years, more than 500 of the individuals taking part in the study developed or were diagnosed with dementia.

As a cluster of symptoms that indicate a decline to brain function, some onset symptoms can be difficult to identify or can be vague and initially indiscernible. Over time, symptoms will become irreversible and degenerative. This progressive nature of the illness underscores the importance of early detection and prevention measures. Maybe one day we’ll know, without equivocation, that one of the harmful effects of poor sleeping habits includes the higher probability of developing dementia.

In the study, individuals in their 50s and 60s who reported no more than six hours of sleep were put at greater risk of developing dementia later in life compared to those in the normal sleep category. For the purposes of the study, normal sleep is defined as more than seven hours of rest. In fact, people who didn’t get enough rest were 30 percent more likely to develop dementia, the study concluded. This recent study isn’t the first to uncover a correlation between poor sleeping patterns and increase diagnosis.

One of the unanswered aspects of the connection between sleep and dementia is that it’s not entirely clear if lack of sleep is a cause or if it is itself an early symptom.

A routine schedule, when and what people eat, diets and outdoor activity can all have an impact on sleep quality. More research is needed to put all the pieces together to understand how everyday activities can change the course of a person’s health journey, for better or worse.

What we can control is being Dementia Aware so caregivers and those living with dementia symptoms can make the most out of their interactions. For information about Dementia Aware trainings, click here.

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