Could sleepless nights increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease?


A good night’s sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. When you’re well rested, your brain functions better – concentration improves, response times quicken and memory sharpens. 

A recent study adds to the reasons why you don’t want to skimp on sleep. A lack of Zs may increase levels of a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease in the brain.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, focuses on a normal protein found in the brain called beta-amyloid. When beta-amyloid accumulates in the brain, it sticks together forming masses called plaques that sit where the cells communicate. In people with Alzheimer’s disease, the plaques typically accumulate in the memory circuits, leading to brain cell death, cognitive loss and, eventually, dementia. 

During sleep, the body works to clear beta-amyloid from the brain but if you don’t sleep well, there’s less time for this system to work. Researchers examined the brains of 20 healthy people ages 22 to 72 after getting a good night’s sleep and after staying awake for more than 30 hours. They found a 5 percent increase in beta-amyloid in the sleep-deprived study participants in the regions of the brain responsible for memory.

This study, although small, suggests you may be saving your brain down the road if you focus on getting good sleep each night now. Some people are genetically predisposed to produce more beta-amyloid and/or have fewer enzymes to break it down. If you overproduce beta-amyloid a lot, you may get Alzheimer’s disease at age 55 or 60 and, if you overproduce it a little, it may take you until age 90 before you build up enough to cause dementia or cognitive issues.

I always ask every patient I see for dementia about sleep, because lack of sleep can make cognition worse. Prior research suggests high amounts of beta-amyloid can lead to sleep disturbances. Therefore, our care team looks at ways to promote quality sleep. Here are a few tips:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Turn off all lights and devices when you go to bed. Turn over your cellphone and turn your alarm clock around. Their blue light is disruptive to sleep.
  • If you tend to fall asleep with the television on, set a timer so it turns off after 30 minutes. This will support deep sleep.
  • Limit fluids before bed, especially alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol is a diuretic and caffeine is a stimulant that can keep you up.
  • Eat earlier in the evening so you aren’t going to bed on a full stomach.
  • Have a sleep study performed to see if you have a sleep disorder.
  • Discuss over the counter and prescription medication options with your doctor.

While more research is needed, if you have a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, consider focusing on getting more sleep. You don’t have control over your genes, but it’s possible maintaining good sleep could stave off Alzheimer’s disease for a number of years because you’re clearing some of those toxic beta-amyloid proteins.

Douglas Scharre is interim chair of the Department of Neurology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.


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