Do Fewer Dreams Mean Higher Dementia Risk?

dementia risk

Story at-a-glance -

  • Ideally, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep should make up, on average, about 25 percent of your total sleep cycle
  • Research found that among those whose REM sleep made up 20 percent of their sleep cycle, no one developed dementia
  • Among those whose REM sleep totaled 17 percent of REM sleep, there was a much greater dementia risk
  • For each 1 percent drop in REM sleep, participants’ risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease increased by about 9 percent

By Dr. Mercola

Each night, your body progresses through five stages of sleep. In stage one, light sleep, you prepare to drift off to sleep. A pre-deep sleep phase is next, during which your brain wave activity becomes rapid and rhythmic while your body temperature drops and heart rate slows. In stage three, you begin to transition from light sleep to deep sleep, and in stage four, delta sleep, you enter deep sleep. In stage five, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occurs, which is when most dreaming happens.

There is still much to be understood when it comes to REM sleep, but it's known to be involved in storing memories, learning and mood. It makes up, on average, about 25 percent of your total sleep cycle,1 but there are individual variations. It turns out that these variations may play a role in your health, as recent research suggests less REM sleep may increase your risk of dementia.

Less REM Sleep May Act as a Predictor of Dementia Risk

People who suffer from dementia often have sleep disturbances, but it's unknown which comes first, the dementia or the sleep problems. Using data from the Framingham Heart Study, researchers from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia tracked the sleep cycle of 321 men and women. Over the course of up to 19 years, the participants were then followed for signs of dementia.

A link was found between REM sleep and dementia risk. Among those whose REM sleep made up 20 percent of their sleep cycle, no one developed dementia. Those whose REM sleep totaled 17 percent of REM sleep, however, had a much greater dementia risk. Study author Matthew Pase told WebMD, "We found that persons experiencing less REM sleep over the course of a night displayed an increased risk of developing dementia in the future."2

Specifically, for each 1 percent drop in REM sleep, participants' risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease increased by about 9 percent. Although cause-and-effect cannot be proven by the featured study, the results suggest that REM sleep, or lack thereof, may act as a predictor of dementia up to 19 years before it occurs. It's also possible that changes in REM sleep could be a contributing cause, rather than a consequence, of dementia. Pase continued to WebMD:3

"[M]ore REM sleep may help protect connections in the brain, which become damaged with dementia. On the other hand, lower REM sleep may result from other factors like chronic stress or undiagnosed sleep disorders, which may independently increase risk for dementia."

It's also been suggested that less REM sleep may alter levels of beta-amyloid, a protein linked to Alzheimer's disease, in the brain. Chronic poor sleepers tend to have higher levels of beta-amyloid in the brain, which in turn makes it more difficult to sleep, leading to a vicious cycle of sleep troubles and, perhaps, increase dementia risk.4 REM sleep is also linked to brain health in that it's known to stimulate regions important for learning.

Lack of REM sleep has been linked to trouble remembering subjects that were taught prior to going to sleep, and it's known that people tend to spend less time in REM sleep as they age.5 Further, lack of REM sleep has also been linked to migraines,6 which are a significant risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.7

Sleeping Patterns Have Many Links to Dementia Risk

Sleep, whether too much or too little, plays an important role in brain health. Those who sleep for more than nine hours a night consistently, for instance, had a sixfold greater risk of developing dementia in the next 10 years compared to those who slept less.8 Long sleep duration was also associated with smaller brain volume and poorer executive function, which suggests prolonged sleep duration may be a marker of early neurodegeneration, the researchers said.

Too little sleep has also been linked to dementia,9 perhaps because your brain's waste removal system only operates during deep sleep. By pumping cerebral spinal fluid through your brain's tissues, the glymphatic system flushes the waste from your brain back into your body's circulatory system.

From there, the waste eventually reaches your liver, where it's ultimately eliminated. The clincher is that this system ramps up its activity during sleep, thereby allowing your brain to clear out toxins, including harmful proteins linked to Alzheimer's.10 During sleep, the glymphatic system becomes 10 times more active than during wakefulness.

Simultaneously, your brain cells shrink by about 60 percent, allowing for greater efficiency of waste removal. German researchers further noted that sleep disturbances, including those that occur before cognitive decline, may be modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer's disease, requiring increased attention in research.

They noted, "[S]leep disturbances not only occur before the onset of typical cognitive deficits but are also associated with the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease and may have a decisive influence on the symptoms and course."11

Why You Should Turn Off Your WI-FI at Night

Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs), including those from WI-FI, cellphones, cordless phones and routers, can disrupt your pineal gland and its melatonin production, and may have other negative biological effects as well.

In fact, EMFs may play a role in neurological diseases not only because they may interfere with sleep but also via "chemical, morphological, and electrical alterations in the nervous system in a direct or indirect way," according to research published in the Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy. Researchers noted:12

"It is reported that non-ionizing EMFs have effects on animals and cells. The changes they bring about in organic systems may cause oxidative stress, which is essential for the neurophysiological process; it is associated with increased oxidization in species, or a reduction in antioxidant defense systems.

Severe oxidative stress can cause imbalances in reactive oxygen species, which may trigger neurodegeneration … EMFs [also affect] neurological disease and associated symptoms, such as headache, sleep disturbances, and fatigue."

A gauss meter is required if you want to measure EMF levels in various areas of your home, but I strongly recommend turning off WI-FI at night, unplugging your smart TV and, if you need a clock, use a battery-operated one. Also, be sure you do not sleep with your cellphone under your pillow, near your head or even in your bedroom. Even better, hard-wire your home instead of using wireless connections and, if possible, install a kill switch to turn off all electricity to your bedroom.

How to Increase REM Sleep

If you regularly have trouble sleeping, there's a good chance your REM sleep is being affected. Melatonin is an important hormone produced by your body's pineal gland. One of its primary roles is regulating your body's circadian rhythm. REM sleep, in turn, is "strongly circadian modulated,"13 which means if your circadian rhythm is optimized, so, too, may be your REM sleep.

Interestingly, research has shown that melatonin (3 milligrams daily, taken between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. for four weeks) led to significant increases in REM sleep percentage among people with reduced REM sleep duration.14

Before considering melatonin supplementation, however, especially for mild sleep disturbances, it makes sense to engage in habits that will increase your natural melatonin production and improve overall health. The tips that follow may help to boost your melatonin and optimize your circadian rhythm, thereby potentially improving your percentage of REM sleep as well.

Sunshine during the morning

Melatonin is affected by your exposure to light and dark. When it is light, production of melatonin naturally drops. Getting at least 15 minutes of sunlight in the morning hours helps to regulate the production of melatonin, dropping it to normal daytime levels, so you feel awake during the day and sleep better at night.

Sleep in the dark

Your body produces and secretes melatonin in the dark, helping you to go to sleep and stay asleep. Sleeping in a completely darkened room, without lights from alarm clocks, televisions or other sources will improve your sleep quality. If you get up during the night to use the bathroom, it's important to keep the lights off so you don't shut off your production of melatonin. Also, wear blue-light blocking glasses after sunset to avoid blue-light exposure.

Turn off your computer and hand-held electronics

Although these are light sources, they deserve special mention as the type of light source from digital equipment may also reduce your body's production of melatonin in the evening when you need it most.

Brightness and exposure to light in the blue and white wavelengths appear to affect the production of melatonin, exactly the wavelengths of light emitted from tablets, laptops and computers.15 To protect your sleep, put your computers and digital equipment away at least one hour before bed.

Reduce your caffeine intake

Caffeine, found in coffee, dark chocolate, cola and other drinks, has a half-life of five hours. This means 25 percent remains in your system 10 hours later. For a better night's sleep, cut out your caffeinated foods and drinks after lunch.

Lower your stress level and your cortisol level

The release of melatonin is dependent on the release of another hormone, norepinephrine. Excess stress, and the resulting release of cortisol, will inhibit the release of norepinephrine and therefore the release of melatonin.16 Stress-reducing strategies you may find helpful before bed include yoga, stretching, meditation and prayer.

Increase foods high in magnesium

Magnesium plays a role in reducing brain activity at night, helping you to relax and fall asleep more easily. It works in tandem with melatonin. Foods containing higher levels of magnesium include almonds, avocados, pumpkin seeds and green leafy vegetables.17

If You Suffer From Memory Problems or Dementia, Switch to a Ketogenic Diet

Worldwide, 47.5 million people are living with dementia. This is expected to increase to 75.6 million by 2030 and more than triple by 2050, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).18 Dementia is not a disease in itself but rather is a term used to describe a number of different brain illnesses that may affect your memory, thinking, behavior and ability to perform everyday activities. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, which accounts for 60 percent to 80 percent of cases.19

Regardless of the state of your sleep cycle or frequency of dreams, if your memory slips often enough that you've wondered if something could be wrong, you may want to consider switching to a high-fat, moderate-protein and low-net-carb ketogenic diet. This is crucial for protecting your brain health and is recommended for virtually everyone, but especially for those who have concerns about their brain health.

This type of diet involves restricting all but non-starchy vegetable carbs and replacing them with low to moderate amounts of high-quality protein and high amounts of beneficial fat. It's a diet that will help optimize your weight and reduce your risk of chronic degenerative disease while protecting your brain. Eating this way will help you convert from carb-burning mode to fat-burning mode, which in turn triggers your body to produce ketones (also known as ketone bodies or ketoacids).

Ketones can feed your brain and prevent brain atrophy. They may even restore and renew neuron and nerve function in your brain after damage has set in. This — leading a healthy lifestyle that includes attention to diet and a healthy sleep cycle — is one of the best tools available to keep your brain sharp as you age.

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