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New Research Shows Link Between Sleep and Thinking Problems in People with MS

January 31, 2023

A recent study showed that sleep problems and thinking (cognitive) problems occurred significantly more frequently in nurses with MS than in nurses who didn’t have MS, and these issues were linked. This means that sleep problems, which are common in MS, may be a factor in the development of cognitive problems. Sleep disorders are treatable (see below). Whether improving sleep can improve cognitive function as well has yet to be determined.
  • Background: Sleep difficulties are more common in people with MS than in the general population. In addition, many people with MS develop problems with cognitive function, including information processing and memory. A team from the University of Michigan investigated whether sleep problems contribute to cognitive problems in people with MS.
  • This Study: Investigators looked at questionnaires completed by 63,866 nurses (524 of with MS) enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study. This ongoing study uses questionnaires to track chronic conditions and risk factors for chronic conditions in women nurses. Participants had been asked about diagnosed/suspected sleep disorders and daytime sleepiness. They also had been asked whether they had difficulties with memory, or with cognitive tasks such as following instructions or navigating familiar streets.
  • Results: Sleep disorders, sleepiness, and cognitive problems were significantly more common in nurses with MS than in those without MS. Using advanced statistical methods, the group showed that the occurrence of sleep disorders and sleepiness were significantly associated with the development of cognitive impairment.
  • The Meaning: Sleep problems and cognitive problems affect many people with MS. This study shows a possible connection, meaning that sleep disorders or excessive sleepiness may be leading to cognitive problems. Further study can help to determine if this is the case. This is important because sleep disorders are treatable. Research in people who do not have MS is starting to show that treatment for some sleep disorders may improve cognition, so there is hope that this may also be true for people living with MS.
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Pathways between multiple sclerosis, sleep disorders, and cognitive function: Longitudinal
findings from The Nurses’ Health Study,” by Tiffany J Braley , Monica M Shieu, Afsara B. Zaheed and Galit Levi Dunietz, is published in the MS Journal (published online January 12, 2023),

About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis, and there is currently no cure for MS. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are leading to better understanding and moving us closer to a world free of MS. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and it affects women three times more than men.


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