It has long been known that disrupted sleep can increase the risk of dementia and anecdotal evidence suggests COVID-19 anxiety is having a detrimental effect on sleep.
A new UK-wide study led by academics at the University of Bristol will focus on how the current lockdown is affecting sleep in older people with and without dementia. It is hoped the findings will increase our understanding of how sleep can influence brain health and long-term dementia risk.
The questionnaire-led study, called SleepQuest, aims to understand sleep quality, mental health and circadian rhythms in older people. Up to 5,000 participants will be recruited through Join Dementia Research, social media and older people's networks.
The researchers believe that the current COVID-19 crisis has led to a large number of people experiencing disrupted sleep and circadian rhythms and that a proportion of these people will go on to develop chronic sleep problems.
Some will successfully employ strategies to improve their sleep and wellbeing. However, in the longer-term, poor sleep may hasten dementia onset or progression - this risk is likely to be highest in people of late working age and older - the over 50s.
Dr Liz Coulthard, Associate Professor in Dementia Neurology at the University of Bristol and neurologist at North Bristol NHS Trust, who is leading the study, said: "We hope to "crowd-source" sleep enhancement strategies so that they can be offered as an online resource for older people.
"We are concerned that current stress and inactivity is leading to insomnia and could cause lasting sleep disturbance. We believe long-term improved sleep could reduce the negative effects of lockdown and preserve brain health. Of course, good sleep also helps improve metabolic, psychological and cardiovascular health too."
The study aims to:
- Learn how sleep and circadian rhythms are disrupted during the COVID-19 crisis;
- Rapidly make available online advice on the best sleep and circadian rhythms during times of stress based on existing resources and the findings from SleepQuest;
- Monitor the long-term impact of sleep and circadian patterns during and after lockdown (through longer term follow up).
Participants in the study will be asked to complete an online questionnaire that will take up to 30 minutes. The team's main research aim is to help older people, including those who have or are at risk of dementia, as well as carers, but anyone can take part.
If younger people complete the questionnaire, the data will be used to compare with older people and understand more about the specific effects of ageing on sleep during lockdown. People who fill in the questionnaire will be contacted with updated advice as more is learnt about how to help sleep in older people.
As part of the planned research, the researchers want to know what attempts, if any, people have made to improve sleep and whether they worked. This will be used to update the online resource for participants to develop strategies to self-manage sleep and circadian rhythms.
By repeating these measures after six months and it is hoped in the long-term, the researchers will be able to track participants' sleep, circadian rhythms, alongside anxiety and stress levels, and how they relate to future brain health and dementia progression in particular.