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This One Sleep Habit Is an Early Predictor of Cognitive Decline, Says Study

Here's why sleep-onset insomnia should never be ignored.

When we don't sleep, we're irritable, unproductive, and unhealthy. When we don't sleep for prolonged periods of time—and suffer from what's known as chronic insomnia—life gets even worse. Chronic insomnia is linked to near-countless physical and mental health issues. For instance, this research published in the scientific journal Circulation reports an association between insomnia and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Other studies, including this new report released by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conclude that sleep issues may increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's.

But not all chronic insomnia is actually created equal, and the symptoms of insomnia may vary from person to person. While some people find that insomnia manifests itself in the form of waking up periodically throughout the night, others may find that simply falling asleep is the issue. Meanwhile, others will report being unable to fall back asleep after waking up in the night.

A new study just released by The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and published in the scientific journal Sleep discovered that exactly one of those symptoms is strongly associated with a serious problem more than a decade later. Keep reading to learn more about it, and for more news you can use in the bedroom, make sure you know why It's Worse to Sleep on This Side of Your Body, Say Experts.


Sleep-Onset Insomnia Predicts Mental Decline

Woman Lying On Bed

For the study, the researchers tracked a group of 2,496 older adults between 2002 and 2016, taking note of sleep habits and eventually administering a series of cognitive tests by the end of the tracking period 14 years later. At the end of the study, of all the insomnia symptoms just mentioned, having difficulty falling asleep in the first place—also known as "sleep-onset insomnia"—appeared to be a uniquely strong warning sign of cognitive impairment and mental decline in the future. And for some great ways to sleep better starting now, see here for The One Secret Sleep Trick That Can Change Your Life.


It's Associated with a Decline in Language, Memory, and More


The study authors report that frequent troubles falling asleep in 2002 predicted poorer language skills, slower processing speed, diminished episodic memory, poor executive function, and reduced visuospatial performance by 2016. This was not the case for other common insomnia complaints, such as frequently waking up at night or being unable to fall back asleep early in the morning.

"While there is growing evidence for a link between insomnia and cognitive impairment in older adults, it has been difficult to interpret the nature of these associations given how differently both insomnia and cognitive impairment can present across individuals," says lead author Afsara Zaheed, a graduate student in clinical science within the department of psychology at the University of Michigan. "By investigating associations between specific insomnia complaints and cognition over time using strong measures of cognitive ability, we hoped to gain additional clarity on whether and how these different sleep problems may lead to poor cognitive outcomes."


This Finding Is a Breakthrough for Dementia Research

Tired woman lying in bed can't sleep late at night with insomnia

"These results are important given the lack of currently available treatments for late-life cognitive disorders, like Alzheimer's disease and other dementias," Zaheed explains. "Sleep health and sleep behaviors are often modifiable. These results suggest that regular screening for insomnia symptoms may help with tracking and identifying people with trouble falling asleep in mid-to-late life who might be at risk for developing cognitive impairments later in life. Additional intervention research is needed to determine whether intervening on insomnia symptoms can help prevent or slow the progression of cognitive impairments in later life."


If You Suffer from Insomnia

Senior Woman Suffering from Insomnia.

If you've been having trouble battling early-onset insomnia, we've got loads of sleep-related tips for you right here. And if more traditional tips you're no doubt already aware of aren't doing the trick—powering down your electronics, going to bed earlier, making your bedroom a sleep oasis, meditating, etc.—the cutting edge of scientific research has at least one out-of-the-box tip you could try.

You may wish to invest in a weighted blanket. (Seriously.) One new study also recently released by the AASM and published in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reports that switching to a weighted chain blanket may do wonders for your sleep habits. When a group of participants who had already been clinically diagnosed with insomnia started using weighted blankets, the majority reported better sleep quality, more energy during the day, and faster sleep onset time.

"A suggested explanation for the calming and sleep-promoting effect is the pressure that the chain blanket applies on different points on the body, stimulating the sensation of touch and the sense of muscles and joints, similar to acupressure and massage," says principal investigator Dr. Mats Adler, consultant psychiatrist in the department of clinical neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet. And for more ways to sleep better, consider trying This Easy Trick for "Falling Asleep in 5 Minutes" That's Going Viral.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more about John