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Researcher to investigate the impact of sleep on dementia

Researcher to investigate the impact of sleep on dementia

Understanding the role of sleep with ageing is becoming increasingly important. Life expectancy is increasing and with it the prevalence of sleep problems, which can negatively impact waking function, physical and mental health, healthcare usage and mortality. However, sleep research and treatment services for older people are limited in New Zealand, compared to younger and less vulnerable populations.

Now a Massey University researcher has been awarded nearly one-quarter of a million dollars to investigate sleep and its relationship to the health and wellbeing of older New Zealanders, highlighting both the personal, sociological, and economical impact of sleep problems. Dr Rosie Gibson from Massey’s Sleep/Wake Research Centre has been awarded $249,998 from the Health Research Council of New Zealand in the latest round of Emerging Researcher First Grants.

“With advancing age, the prevalence of dementia increases. This can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals and their families, as well increasing the burden on the economy, residential and hospitalised care,” she says.

“Sleep problems are among the most disruptive behavioural symptoms of dementia and have been associated with exacerbated waking symptoms, whilst also negatively affecting the sleep and coping ability of informal family carers. This has implications for premature movement into residential or hospitalised care.”

The project will provide the first broad understanding of sleep and its relationship to the health and wellbeing of older New Zealanders. It includes four interlinked studies using mixed research methods and different groups of older people in order to address important gaps in this field over the next three years.



The first phase of the project aims to describe the sleep timing and prevalence of sleep disorders and daytime sleepiness amongst older New Zealanders, and to explore age-related changes in the relationships between sleep problems and health status. This will be achieved through the analysis of New Zealand Health Survey data, as well as focus groups.

“Focus groups will be conducted with older Māori and non-Māori to explore cultural and sociological aspects of sleep with ageing, including beliefs and attitudes around sleep problems and their management,” Dr Gibson says.

The second phase of the research aims to explore sleep as a predictor for consideration and admission into aged residential care for people with and without dementia. This will be achieved through large scale analysis of the formal data used for assessment and admission into aged residential care to determine the role of sleep problems in this decision, as well as one-on-one interviews.

“Interviews will be conducted with informal family carers who have recently transitioned their family member with dementia into residential care. These will explore and represent the sleep experiences of families affected by dementia and the changes before, during and after the transition to formal care.”

Dr Gibson’s overarching objective is to develop new knowledge and strategies to contribute to older people being able to live independently and well for longer. “The study findings will increase the options available to healthcare professionals to support older people to achieve this. This new knowledge will be widely disseminated and offer an empirical basis for designing future research, including a large trial of non-pharmacological interventions for use in home care, translational resources, and informing health management within this rapidly growing population,” she says.

Dr Gibson says she chose to research this issue because she is passionate about the fields of sleep science, ageing, and neurodegenerative disease. “Considering we spend a third of our lives asleep, that’s approximately 22 years by the time we reach 65, the importance of it is still largely overlooked in healthcare.

“Older people, people with dementia, and family carers are often disenfranchised in society and under-represented in research that concerns them. In order to meet national and international goals of ‘ageing well in place’ and ‘living well with dementia’, more research including community-dwelling older New Zealanders and families affected by dementia are required,” Dr Gibson says.

“Sleep problems are a modifiable risk factor associated with poor health. For example, poor sleep has been associated with cognitive impairment, depression, falls, pain, hospital admissions, and mortality. Better understanding and management of sleep problems with ageing, dementia and care provision is important for older New Zealanders as well as the wider community, having cost and capacity implications for the national healthcare system and aged care services.”

Dr Gibson is leading the research projects in collaboration with professionals in sleep science, geriatric, Māori, and public health research.
- Professor Philippa Gander, Sleep/Wake Research Centre, Massey University
- Professor Tony Dowell, Primary Healthcare, University of Otago
- Professor Chris Cunningham, Research Centre for Māori Health and Development, Massey University
- Professor Matthew Parsons, Professor in Gerontology at Waikato District Health Board and University of Auckland
- Dr John McCarthy, Ministry of Health.

She would also like to acknowledge the continued support and partnership with the staff and clients of Dementia Wellington, a local organisation providing services to families affected by dementia.

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