You already know that sleep is important to your health for a variety of reasons, but did you know the right amount and quality of sleep could contribute to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease?
A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin–Madison involved 1,500 people ages 40 to 65, none of whom had symptoms of dementia when they signed up. 70 percent of them, however, had a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. The participants fill out lengthy questionnaires about their lifestyle and habits, and they’re tested for memory and cognition issues, as well as for the level of amyloid-beta plaques built up in their brains.
One of the questions on the forms each patient fills out is a simple, “How tired are you?” And the answers to this question have been very revealing. A subgroup of people who had the poorest sleep patterns and were the most tired were also those with increased amyloid-beta plaque buildup in their brains. In a separate subgroup, poor sleep was also correlated with signs of Alzheimer’s disease present in the spinal fluid.
Based on the data, it appears that even a single sleepless night can lead to a visible (through a microscope, of course) increase in the amount of amyloid-beta plaque built up in the brain. And those who have trouble sleeping on a regular basis could have a 68% increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms later in life.
It seems that one of the many magical things the brain does during sleep is to clear out the amyloid proteins that have accumulated during the day, thereby staving off Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, it has been shown that mice have 25% lower rates of amyloid-beta in their brains after a good night’s rest. But in people who have irregular sleep rhythms, have trouble sleeping, or just don’t get enough sleep, these proteins don’t get properly disposed of and are able to build up more quickly into dangerous plaques.
Amyloid-beta plaques, if allowed to build up in the brain, are believed to be the main cause of Alzheimer’s disease, because they block the communication between neurons, meaning certain signals to and from the brain don’t get transmitted the way they’re supposed to. And, sadly, the worse Alzheimer’s gets, the more trouble the patient generally has sleeping, which only serves to compound the problem.
Over time, this issue worsens, until the patient is no longer able to plan or perform the simplest of activities, such as making a sandwich or dressing him- or herself. And since we don’t have a cure or effective long-term treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, it will eventually be deadly. So finding out the importance of sleep as a preventative measure for Alzheimer’s disease could be paramount to our goal of more fully understanding and effectively preventing and treating the disease.
“It does highlight that sleep is indispensable for proper brain function,” says Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md. and author of a study that deprived its subjects of sleep for 31 hours. “What we have to question is what happens when you are consistently sleep deprived.”
More research on this topic is needed, especially concerning the degree to which lack of sleep causes or exacerbates Alzheimer’s disease and what factors influence that relationship. But for now, this compelling new research is just one more reason to get some extra shut-eye whenever you have the opportunity.
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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?