Sleeplessness, Fatigue Linked to Age-Related Brain Atrophy

A tired man napping in a chairSeniors who experience excessive fatigue during the day may have more brain atrophy than well-rested seniors, according to a study presented at SLEEP 2016, the 30th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS). Researchers found atrophy was greatest in regions of the brain vulnerable to Alzheimer’s and age-related decline, suggesting fatigue could be an early sign of brain degeneration.

The Link Between Fatigue and Brain Atrophy

For their study, researchers worked with 1,374 cognitively normal seniors age 50 and older who participated in the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. Participants completed surveys of sleepiness and fatigue and underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans to establish baseline brain functioning.

Participants who reported high levels of daytime sleepiness had lower cognitive scores and more medical problems. They were also more likely to report sleep disturbances, pointing to a correlation between disturbed sleep and daytime fatigue.

Changes in Sleep: Early Dementia Warning Sign?

The study’s authors suggest these results may help doctors identify people at risk for dementia, increasing opportunities for early treatment. Previous research supports this claim. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, changes in sleep habits are common among people with Alzheimer’s. This may be due to the ways Alzheimer’s changes the brain. Some common Alzheimer’s-related sleep changes include:

  • Insomnia and disturbed sleep.
  • Changes in dreaming patterns. Brain scans show people with dementia spend less time in both dreaming and non-dreaming sleep cycles.
  • Changes in the sleep cycle, such as napping during the day, or feeling drowsy during the day.
  • Sundowning, an experience characterized by behavioral and cognitive changes late in the afternoon or evening.

In the late stages of Alzheimer’s, seniors may spend as much as 40% of their nights awake, as well as a significant portion of the day sleeping.

The National Sleep Foundation says some age-related changes in sleeping are normal. The foundation recommends 7-8 hours of sleep per night for seniors 65 and older, compared to 7-9 hours for adults younger than 65. The American Academy of Pediatrics is also supporting a new revised recommendation from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine for children’s sleep guidelines. Also presented at SLEEP 2016, these recommendations now include as many as 16 hours of sleep for infants, 14 hours for young children, and 12 hours for school-age children.


  1. Brooks, M. (2016, June 14). New AASM guideline on optimal sleep for children. Retrieved from
  2. National Sleep Foundation recommends new sleep times. (2015, February 2). Retrieved from
  3. Sleepiness and fatigue linked to brain atrophy in cognitively normal elderly. (2016, June 14). Retrieved from
  4. Treatments for sleep changes. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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  • Harvey

    June 16th, 2016 at 1:45 PM

    I see this with both of my parents, neither of them sleep very restfully at night and so it totally ruins their day. And I think that there is becoming this cumulative effect, where it used to be that if you didn’t sleep well at night you could sort of catch up. But after so long, it starts to seem like it is too much for them to catch up on, and they are just losing that sharpness that both of them have always seemed to have. That seems to be missing more and more.

  • Jayna

    June 16th, 2016 at 4:19 PM

    What are the age parameters here?
    because I am 42 and feeling it already

  • Elaine

    June 18th, 2016 at 9:06 AM

    I am thinking that studies like this could lead to more doctors ordering sleep studies on their senior patients. Once we begin to see patterns like this emerge it could only stand to reason that there is much more information that could be gathered when you start looking at the sleep habits of this older population. Within this could be some of the answers that are currently being sought in other ways, but who knows? This could begin to offer an even clearer picture than what we currently have.

  • davey

    June 20th, 2016 at 9:24 AM

    Apparently need to come up with a much better plan for getting more sleep.

  • George T

    June 21st, 2016 at 2:36 PM

    I very much worry about my dad. Since my mom dies he has had the most erratic of sleep schedules and I thought that a large part of that is that he is depressed and he does not know exactly how to handle this kind of loss. But when I suggest that he talk to his doctor about it he says that he is fine and of course they will not talk to me because I do not have any kind of medical power of attorney over him or anything like that. He is still capable of making his own decisions but I wonder if he is making the right ones that will necessarily benefit or help get him through this.

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