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Dementia link to less REM sleep

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Apanda Anyuon, ECU Reporter

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A ground-breaking study by a Swinburne researcher has found that dementia in the elderly can be predicted by measuring rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

REM sleep is a specific stage of sleep characterised by rapid eye movement and we typically associate it with dreaming.

During the REM stage, the eyes move more rapidly and there is increased brain activity along with quicker pulse and faster breathing. This stage usually occurs about an hour to an hour-and-a-half into sleep and then recurs throughout the night as the cycles repeat.

The study found that less REM sleep over the course of an overnight sleep was associated with a higher risk of developing dementia in the future. Specifically, each 1% reduction in REM sleep was associated with a 9% increase in the risk of developing dementia.

For the study, researchers looked at 321 people with an average age of 67 who participated in the US based Framingham Heart Study. Their sleep cycles were measured. Researchers then followed the participants for an average of 12 years. During that time, 32 people were diagnosed with some form of dementia and of those, 24 were determined to have Alzheimer’s disease.

Those who developed dementia spent an average of 17% of their sleep time in REM sleep, compared to 20 percent for those who did not develop dementia. Author, Dr Matthew Pase, said the findings point to REM sleep being a predictor of dementia.

According to Pase, lower REM sleep may not simply be a consequence of dementia itself, the overall functions of REM sleep are still not that well understood.

“Our results are important because we show that lower REM sleep is associated with the risk of dementia up to 18 years into the future. As with other stages of sleep, REM sleep may be important for consolidating information learned during the day and for maintaining connections within the brain,” he said.

Dementia is rare in young adults and according to Dr Pase, their study is only relevant to older adults over the age of 60 years. He said; “It is important to note that we do not demonstrate that lower REM sleep causes dementia, only that the two are linked.”

The next step will be to determine which mechanisms of REM sleep lead to the greater risk of dementia.“By clarifying the role of sleep in the onset of dementia, the hope is to eventually identify possible ways to intervene so that dementia can be delayed or even prevented,” Dr Pase said.

The study was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Quality journalism by ECU students
Dementia link to less REM sleep