Whether shortened sleep is an early symptom of dementia or whether it leads to the problem still needs to be worked out.By Dr. Maria Simbra

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Jean Royse’s 89-year-old mother has dementia. She has trouble with thinking and remembering.

As a younger woman, sleep was not a priority.

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“She was a very busy woman. She raised six kids,” Royse said. “She was never in bed when we were. You’re up early to get everybody taken care of.”

Turns out, how much sleep people get when they’re younger could influence how well the brain works when they’re older.

“It’s one of those areas where we talk about understanding what are some modifiable risk factors. Think about diet, nutrition, overall physical health. Sleep is a big part of our overall lifestyle,” said Sara Murphy of the Alzheimer’s Association.

British researchers followed 8,000 people for 25 years from the time they were 50.

“Because it was so long and a relatively big study, it gives pretty good evidence you need to focus on sleep,” said Dr. Dan Shade, a sleep specialist at the Allegheny Health Network.

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Compared to those who slept seven hours a night, those who got six hours of sleep on average were 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with dementia in their 70s.

“One thing that sleep does is strengthens memories. It also prunes memories you don’t need to know,” said Dr. Shade. “When you don’t get enough sleep, you deposit proteins that are linked to Alzheimer’s. And we think these proteins are not getting cleared.”

Whether shortened sleep is an early symptom of dementia or whether it leads to the problem still needs to be worked out.

“Lack of sleep may be a risk factor,” Dr. Shade said. “There are many risk factors for dementia, this would be just one little piece of the puzzle.

Royse does her best to get enough rest but admits it’s hard.

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While no one can say that a lack of sleep contributed to her mother’s dementia, Royse’s busy days remind her of her mom.