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Sleep quantity and quality are associated with executive function (EF) in experimental studies, and in individuals with sleep disorders. With advancing age, sleep quantity and quality decline, as does the ability to perform EF tasks, suggesting that sleep disruption may contribute to age-related EF declines. This cross-sectional cohort study tested the hypothesis that poorer sleep quality (i.e., the frequency and duration of awakenings) and/or quantity may partly account for age-related EF deficits.
Community-dwelling older adults (N = 184) completed actigraphic sleep monitoring then a range of EF tasks. Two EF factors were extracted using exploratory structural equation modeling. Sleep variables did not mediate the relationship between age and EF factors. Post hoc moderated mediation analyses were conducted to test whether cognitive reserve compensates for sleep-related EF deficits, using years of education as a proxy measure of cognitive reserve.
We found a significant interaction between cognitive reserve and the number and frequency of awakenings, explaining a small (approximately 3%), but significant amount of variance in EF. Specifically, in individuals with fewer than 11 years of education, greater sleep disturbance was associated with poorer EF, but sleep did not impact EF in those with more education. There was no association between age and sleep quantity.
This study highlights the role of cognitive reserve in the sleep–EF relationship, suggesting individuals with greater cognitive reserve may be able to counter the impact of disturbed sleep on EF. Therefore, improving sleep may confer some protection against EF deficits in vulnerable older adults.
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