Closeup of older woman sleeping in bed

Insomnia may be an important target for early intervention to help prevent age-related cognitive decline, according to a new study from Canada.

Investigators from various institutions found that insomnia disorder in middle-aged and older adults increases the risk of subjective memory decline. More than 26,000 aged 45 years to 85 years, completed baseline evaluations of sleep, memory and neuropsychological performance that were repeated at a three-year follow-up. Based on sleep questionnaires, participants were categorized as having probable insomnia disorder (PID), insomnia symptoms only (ISO), or no insomnia symptoms (NIS)

Specific deficits

Participants who said they had no insomnia symptoms at baseline but developed PID at three years had increased odds of self-reported memory worsening when compared to those who developed ISO or remained NIS. 

In addition, participants whose sleep worsened from baseline to follow-up were more likely to report worsened memory at follow-up when compared to those who remained either insomnia-free or improved their sleep, according to co-lead author Nathan Cross, PhD, of Concordia University, Montreal, and colleagues. 

“This deficit in memory was specific, as we also looked at other cognitive function domains such as attention span multi-tasking,” Cross said in a statement. “We only found differences in memory.”

But there is positive news as well, he added. 

“This highlights the importance of properly diagnosing and managing insomnia as early as possible in older adults,” he said. “Adequately treating insomnia disorder might become an important preventive measure for cognitive decline and mitigate the incidence of dementia in later life.”

Insomnia diagnosis

A diagnosis of insomnia requires that an individual have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking too early three nights a week over a period of three months. In addition, the sleep problems must cause problems in the daytime, the researchers noted. 

Study subjects were participants in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. 

Full findings were published in the journal SLEEP.

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