As researchers continue to explore the factors that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, they are finding that there may be a significant correlation between getting enough sleep and protecting your cognitive skills. Those with disrupted sleep may develop a certain sticky protein, known as beta-amyloid, which is known to cause damage prior to having symptoms. Researchers reported these results recently at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.
Dr. Matthew Walker, of the University of California at Berkeley, stated, “It’s very clear that sleep disruption is an underappreciated factor. It’s a new player on the scene that increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease.” This information was presented to help link amyloid levels with people’s sleep and memory performance.
One of the key factors to consider is that sleep problems are generally treatable, and it is important that seniors get enough shut-eye to keep their cognitive function intact. As Walker states, “Sleep is a modifiable factor. It’s a new treatment target.”
In general, it is important for people to get good sleep, seven to eight hours per night is the typical amount recommended. Those who are sleep deprived have more trouble with focusing and learning. For those who develop dementia, nightly wandering and other problems that are common are often related to the brain cell damage which can be exacerbated by poor sleep habits.
Sleep problems are thought to actually interact with some of the disease processes that are present in Alzheimer’s disease, and once patients develop these symptoms, their sleep deteriorates even further. Dr. Miroslaw Mackiewicz, of the National Institute on Aging, explains that the entire process is generally a “vicious cycle,” one that is difficult to fight.
Genetic research related to understanding the risks of Alzheimer’s disease may help to develop special gene therapies that can reduce the risk, or reduce the symptoms. In particular, Dr. Walker’s team of researchers performed PET scans on 26 healthy adult volunteers, all in their 70s, to measure the amount of amyloid that may have built up in their brains. The participants were given a set of words to memorize and then their brain waves were measured while they slept.
Results showed that those adult with increased levels of amyloid in certain brain regions experienced less deep sleep than those with little amyloid presence. Those with more amyloid tended to forget more overnight, as well. This may be related to a disconnect as the brain attempts to transfer information into long term memory.
There are certain risks that increase over time, when you do not get enough sleep. Two different studies examined approximately 6,000 people over the course of five years and concluded that those with the poorest sleep quality—meaning they were more likely to toss and turn, wake frequently, or have difficulty falling asleep—were at a higher risk for developing cognitive impairment in the form of early memory problems that are suggestive of the development of Alzheimer’s.
Those with sleep apnea, or brief, frequent interruptions of breathing while sleeping, showed twice the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Anyone at risk for Alzheimer’s should be screened early if they show symptoms of sleep problems.