New Science Links Lack of Sleep to Alzheimer's Disease

What You Can Do About it Now
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Looking for a reason to get more shut-eye, and to encourage your parents and other loved ones to do the same? Science backs you up. Recent studies link Alzheimer's disease to lack of sleep.

According to the study published recently in the journal Nature Neuroscience and presented at the 2015 Alzheimer's Association International Conference, disrupted sleep may add a missing piece to the Alzheimer's disease puzzle. A sticky protein called beta-amyloid is the culprit of the interrupted slumber. In the study, researchers gave their subjects words to memorize overnight, measured the brain’s beta-amyloid levels and activity during the actual memory exercises, and then tracked their brain waves while they slept overnight. The more amyloid people had in a particular brain region, the less deep sleep they got — and the worse their memories were. The study found that memories didn’t transfer from short-term to longer-term as they should.

“Sleep deprivation accelerated the bad brain toxins,” UC Berkeley neuroscientist Dr. Bryce Mander, who co-led the study along with fellow UC Berkeley neuroscientist William Jagust. “It’s not just any sleep, it’s deep sleep rhythms," Mander said. "Deep sleep is deeper stage of non-REM sleep (there are two forms – rapid eye and non rapid eye movement, which is non-REM). Sleep that’s important for memory is easy to disrupt.” Sleep also helps wash away toxic proteins at night to ward off buildup and potentially kill off brain cells. One of the researchers described it as “a power cleanse for the brain.”

The new findings come as researchers look for ways to manage the tsunami of Alzheimer's that’s overtaking us as the baby boomers age (we’re about to experience the first wave of them turning 70 soon). More than 5 million Americans already have Alzheimer's, and that’s expected to more than double by 2050. Also scary is the fact that possible causations – such as sleep deprivation and poor patterns – can begin a couple of decades before active Alzheimer’s symptoms ever appear.

While scientists continue to look for medications and treatments to stave off and manage the disease, the good news about this discovery is that you can potentially treat poor sleep. For example you can improve your sleep if you exercise and change your behavior (e.g. maintain regular times for meals, bedtime, and waking up; avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine; and treat any sleep-impacting pain). In more extreme cases, you can receive electrical stimulation to amplify your sleep-time brain waves.

Can you sleep your way to Alzheimer’s risk reduction?
“There’s evidence of that," Dr. Mander said. “If you treat sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, where you have an obstruction in your airway, through CPAP, a common treatment – or dental devices, surgical procedures, and drugs – you reduce risk. We don’t know how taking sleep medications will help. But we do know this is not just for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Particularly for your audience, the stresses of caregiving can really impact your sleep, too.”

What’s next in Alzheimer’s-sleep research?
“NIH is supporting a longitudinal study to see if patterns continue with some of our test subjects over five years or longer,” said Dr. Mander, “and we’ll try different treatments/interventions to see what works and improve cognitive outcomes.” In addition to the type and amount of sleep, there are questions about sleeping position, too. Another recent study led by an international team of scientists at Stony Brook University indicates that there's an optimal sleeping position for brain health – and fortunately, it's the most common one. It's estimated that nearly two in three Americans sleep on their side. The findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, note that sleeping on your side is best when it comes to your brain's nighttime processes for clearing out waste and harmful chemicals.

“It is interesting that the lateral sleep position is already the most popular in human and most animals – even in the wild – and it appears that we have adapted the lateral sleep position to most efficiently clear our brain of the metabolic waste products that built up while we are awake,” researcher Maiken Nedergaard said in a news release.

If there’s one takeaway from this rush of recent news, it’s this. Take your sleep as seriously as you do your awake time, and encourage your older loved ones to do the same.

Dave Singleton

Dave Singleton is an award-winning writer, editor and author, who writes for numerous publications and websites on a variety of topics, including health, caregiving, pop culture, food, travel, social trends, relationships, and LGBT life. See full bio