Hardened Brain Arteries in Seniors Linked with Poor Sleep

Hardened Brain Arteries in Seniors Linked with Poor Sleep

Older adults who have trouble sleeping may be more prone to having damaged brain tissue because of lack of oxygen, as well as hardened arteries in the brain – both of which can lead to a higher risk of cognitive impairment and stroke – a new study suggests.

Dr. Andrew Lim, author of the study and a neurologist and scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto, said that those types of brain injuries may cause chronic progressive motor and cognitive impairment, and increase the risk of having a stroke.

According to Dr. Lim, people whose sleep is interrupted by numerous awakenings, also known as fragmented sleep, are more likely to develop cognitive decline and dementia.

In the new study – published Thursday (Jan. 14) in the journal Stroke – the researchers examined the brains of 315 people ages ninety (on average), who underwent autopsies when they died. About seventy percent of them were women.

Before the people in the study died, researchers had monitored their sleep and tracked their daily activity for about a week. They then assessed the quality of the people’s sleep, based on the monitoring data.

The results showed that sixty-one percent of the study participants – whose brains were later on examined – had damage in their brain arteries, and twenty-nine percent of them had had a stroke. The damage in the blood vessels ranged from moderate to severe, the researchers noted.

The researchers found that thirty-one percent of the people whose sleep was often interrupted, were more likely to have oxygen-starved brain tissue – and thus damaged brain tissue – than the people who slept without interruption.

People who experienced fragmented sleep were twenty-seven percent more prone to have hardened arteries in the brain, compared with those who sleep without frequent awakenings, according to the researchers.

The study does not show a cause-and-effect relationship, but rather an association between brain problems and poor sleep. In may be that fragmented sleep is either a consequence or cause of damage to the brain tissue and hardening of the brain arteries. However, there may also be another factor that leads to both brain problems and sleep problems, according to the researchers.

Although it is still unclear how poor sleep leads to brain problems, one explanation may be that fragmented sleep impairs blood circulation to the brain, the researchers explained. Sleep monitoring could be used as a method to identify older people who may have an increased risk of stroke – provided that the link between interrupted sleep and brain problems is confirmed.

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