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Too little sleep — or too much — is linked with cognitive decline, Wash U study finds

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Angie Wang
/
NPR
Sleeping too much may be a sign of poor sleep quality.

If you’re not sleeping enough, you’d be wrong to ignore that: A new study by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine has found a link between too little sleep and cognitive decline.

Also identified in the study? A link between such decline and too much sleep.

Researchers believe dealing with those problems could be a way of staving off the onset of Alzheimer’s, said Dr. Brendan Lucey, an associate professor of neurology and director of the Washington University Sleep Medicine Center.

“It's a bidirectional relationship, meaning that sleep changes are both a marker for the changes in the brain that we see with Alzheimer's disease, but also that sleep disturbances can be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's disease,” Lucey explained.

Lucey and his associates tracked cognitive function in a large group of older adults over several years, using EEG scans to track participants’ sleep stages and quality of rest. The data helps untangle the complicated relationship among sleep, Alzheimer’s and cognitive function.

“[This] opens up the possibility that we could intervene with a sleep intervention and potentially change the trajectory, delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease,” he told St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske.

It may seem counterintuitive that too much sleep could be related to cognitive decline. Lucey clarified that it’s not that longer slumber causes issues, but rather, sleeping too much may be a sign of poor sleep quality.

Dr. Brendan Lucey joins St. Louis on the Air

“It could be that someone has an untreated sleep disorder,” he said. “A common one that I see in the sleep clinic is obstructive sleep apnea. When it's untreated, an individual may sleep for a long period of time, but they're not getting quality sleep because of the repeated breathing problems they have during sleep.

“It's like they're skipping across the pond,” he continued. “They're getting into the top layers of the water, the light stages of sleep, but they're missing out on those deeper stages … those restorative sleep stages.”

In addition to discussing his latest research, Lucey answered listener questions, fielding everything from questions about whether melatonin is a healthy sleep aid to discussing how to deal with sleep-related problems that stem from menopause.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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