School of Medicine

How deep sleep keeps our brains intact

A patient undergoes a sleep study at the Washington University Sleep Medicine Center. (Photo: Matt Miller)

When you live with dementia, your sleep breaks apart, the nights a strobe-lit blur, the grayed days lost to catnaps. Physicians — and families — have known this for years. But what no one realized, until landmark research at Washington University in 2009 set a series of studies in motion, was that fragmented sleep might be as much a cause as a consequence of dementia. And good sleep in middle age just might ward off a decline.

Sleep disturbances are not normal and inevitable parts of aging, despite what conventional wisdom might say. Often they are early signs of a condition that is treatable.

Dementia is not an inevitable consequence of aging, either. But it is associated with aging — about one-third of Americans over 85 live with some form of dementia. In the U.S., more than 6 million people are living with dementia, and it impacts their ability to think and remember, their personalities and their sense of identity and well-being. The disease also impacts the lives of all who love them. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) predicts this number could double in the next 40 years, as the population grows older and lives longer.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Though symptoms can be temporarily improved, there is no way to prevent the disease or halt its progression.

Read more.