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New Study Links Slow-Wave Sleep Loss and Dementia Risk

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 22 Nov 2023

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An illustration of the human brain and slow-wave sleep
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We already know that dementia risk increases with age. It turns out that sleep loss may be a risk factor, too.

A new study published last month in JAMA Neurology describes a correlation between slow-wave sleep decline and the risk of developing dementia. It’s relevant because, unlike aging, sleep loss is a factor we can control.

We’re breaking down what the study found and why you should care.

Slow-Wave Sleep Loss and Dementia Risk

The Data Analysis

The tricky thing about longitudinal studies is that they take a long time. It’s hard to directly observe how someone’s lifestyle and wellness choices today will impact their health decades in the future. In this case, researchers pulled data from an overnight sleep study conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In the original study, researchers were examining cardiovascular risk factors. The same participants completed overnight sleep studies approximately five years apart to see what changed. In the 17 years since, some of the original study participants have developed dementia. The new research looked at the original data to determine what clues might be correlated with the onset of dementia later in life.

The conclusion was that sleep loss played a significant factor. Researchers reported that a 1% loss in slow-wave sleep per year “was associated with a 27% increase in the risk of dementia.”

Preventing Slow-Wave Sleep Loss

Slow-wave sleep is another name for deep sleep. REM sleep is the stage when dreams occur, but deep sleep is Stage IV, completely-passed-out sleep. If someone shakes you awake from deep sleep, you will be disoriented, groggy, and angry. It’s characterized by low-frequency brain waves known as delta waves. Scientists hypothesize that slow-wave sleep plays an important role in:

  • Long-term memory formation
  • Bodily healing
  • Tissue growth

Some neuroscience researchers have suggested that slow-wave sleep allows the brain to flush out the plaque and protein buildup often associated with dementia, as if the brain were taking its trash to the curb. That’s what makes this new JAMA study noteworthy — it gives some longitudinal examples of people not getting the full “clean out” time for their brains.

If there is a strong link between deep sleep loss and the later onset of dementia, this would be exciting. It would allow us to address early dementia risk factors potentially decades before the disease is diagnosed.

Could This Help Cure Dementia?

We do not currently have a cure for dementia, and increasing slow-wave sleep is easier said than done. We already know our culture is bad at sleeping. Even if you take a supplement or natural remedy to help you sleep, you won’t necessarily get more deep sleep. A long night of tossing and turning may not be restful in the way your brain needs.

But with the right interventions and lifestyle factors, it is possible to enhance or increase slow-wave sleep, giving optimism that medical professionals could help patients fight off dementia symptoms simply by helping them sleep.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He writes about medicine, technology, and ways to sleep better.

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