Insomnia during middle age linked to poor brain health among retirees

HELSINKI, Finland — Too many sleepless nights at 45 may lead to cognitive decline at 65, according to researchers from the University of Helsinki. Study authors report a clear connection between long-term insomnia during mid-life and poorer brain functioning post-retirement.

As part of The Helsinki Health Study at the University of Helsinki, the research team tracked and analyzed over 3,700 Helsinki residents, examining the onset of insomnia symptoms during middle age and their impact on memory recall, learning ability, and concentration skills after each individual had retired. Study authors tracked each person for 15 to 17 years.

“The findings indicate that severe insomnia symptoms were associated with worse cognitive function among those who were on statutory pension,” says Doctoral Researcher Antti Etholén in a university release.

Importantly, the study reports a clear and troubling pattern. The longer an adult struggles with insomnia in mid-life, the more learning ability and concentration problems they report during old age. Conversely, if insomnia symptoms ease up during middle-age, the individual is more likely to have good brain health later on.

This isn’t the first study to find that sleep is important to cognition and brain health. However, these findings are especially noteworthy due to the exceptionally long follow-up period among insomnia patients.

How can you get a better sleep?

All in all, researchers conclude that the entire medical community should view long-lasting insomnia problems as a serious risk factor for cognition issues down the line.

“Based on our findings, early intervention tackling insomnia symptoms, or measures aimed at improving the quality of sleep would be justified,” adds Professor Tea Lallukka.

There are plenty of ways to get better sleep in theory. Sticking to a set bedtime, avoiding caffeine, and keeping one’s bedroom dark and at a comfortable temperature, for example. In practice, though, falling asleep can feel near impossible for insomniacs. Moving forward, the team at UH would like to see further work focusing on what helps insomniacs fall asleep, and if those intervention have any long-term benefit regarding cognition.

“In subsequent studies, it would be interesting to shed further light on, for example, whether the treatment of insomnia can also slow down the development of memory disorders,” Prof. Lallukka concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Aging and Health.

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