Poor sleep quality is a public health crisis that shows no signs of abating, especially as our 24/7 hyper-connected society continues find new ways for us to connect. Along with just feeling lousy, it also increases risk for a number of chronic diseases like diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular issues.
Now, scientists are getting ready to add another illness to that gruesome list – Alzheimer’s Disease – based on a growing body of research that points to a link between lack of slumber and this debilitating condition affecting an estimated 4.5 million Americans.
Alzheimer’s Disease disrupts brain functions like memory, speech, cognitive thinking and the ability to carry out every-day, normal activities. The most common onset age is 60 years old, with risks doubling every five years. Those with Alzheimer’s Disease experience sleep disruption because of the disease. At early onset, patients might sleep more or wake up feeling confused. As the disease progresses, they may sleep more during the day and wake up frequently through the night.
With rates of the disease expected to rise as the median age of Americans increases, studies are taking a closer look at how sleep factors into Alzheimer’s Disease.
Disturbed sleep is connected to higher levels of something called soluble beta amyloid. It’s a type of protein that forms sticky plaques that destroy brain cells and slow down the rate information can be processed.
Good news is coming in the form of new studies. One study showed mice that slept well were able to reduce the amount of the toxic beta amyloid. Proper rest allowed the toxin to be swept out of the brain.
Meanwhile, a study published in Neurology, a medical journal, looked at 101 participants who had an elevated risk of developing Alzheimer’s based on family history and the presence of the APOE gene (linked to up to 25% of Alzheimer’s cases). It examined cerebrospinal fluid in order to find markers that indicated inflammation and nerve cell damage.
Barbara Bendlin of Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center was the co-author of the study. She said: “Our findings align with the idea that worse sleep may contribute to the accumulation of Alzheimer’s-related proteins in the brain. The fact that we can find these effects in people who are cognitively healthy and close to middle age suggest that these relationships appear early, perhaps providing a window of opportunity for intervention.”
Even one night of poor sleep is enough to raise levels of beta amyloid, according to data provided by the Washington University’s Sleep Medicine Center, published in the neurology journal Brain. It’s clear that the evidence is pointing to a relationship between early Alzheimer’s and sleep disturbance.
Some scientists are saying that deep sleep, the kind that has you waking up with drool on your pillow, is essential. It’s the time when your body does a lot of its restoration and repair work. That includes your brain having a chance to do a thorough cleanup of the kind of toxins that can trigger Alzheimer’s.
In July 2017 at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, evidence was revealed that linked obstructive sleep apnea (a condition where breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep with pauses lasting at least 10 seconds) and the buildup of beta amyloid and tau – two proteins found in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s.
This backs the findings of Stanford University Medical Center that found a gene associated with obstructive sleep apnea is also connected to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases.
Don’t panic though.
This is a new frontier of research and there’s much more work needed to definitively link sleep problems to Alzheimer’s Disease. So far, indicators are saying that there’s something here worth investigating. Not all people who sleep poorly will develop the disease, but for those who are at risk, it’s an important reminder to put sleep at the top of their to-do lists earlier in life as a preventative measure.
According to the Harvard University Health Letter, other things you can do to avoid the disease include:
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