Sleep and Its Connection to Alzheimer’s
Getting plenty of high-quality sleep isn’t just good for your day-to-day well-being and mood. It also has an impact on your brain’s health. Recent studies have found some important connections between sleep and Alzheimer’s disease. While this troubling disease is still not fully understood, it is clear that good sleep is a protective factor.
Alzheimer’s Disease and the Brain
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive degeneration of brain cells and brain tissue. It causes dementia, symptoms of which include a decline in cognitive function, social skills, and behaviors. Memory loss is often an early sign of Alzheimer’s, and eventually, even with treatment, the progression of the disease makes it impossible to function independently.
There isn’t one single thing that causes Alzheimer’s, but rather a series of risk factors, lifestyle habits, and genetic and environmental factors that are likely to blame. What happens in the brain during the course of the disease is complicated, but researchers have discovered two main proteins responsible for the decline in function:
- Beta-amyloid plaques are fragments of larger proteins that clump together. The clumps have a toxic effect on the brain and on neurons.
- Tau proteins normally act in the brain to transport materials and nutrients within neurons. In individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, they get tangled together and disrupt this system.
Sleep Deprivation and Alzheimer’s Disease
One recent study has connected lack of sleep to an increase in beta-amyloid protein fragments in the brain. National Institute of Health researchers scanned the brains of healthy, adult participants. They performed the scans after a full night of quality sleep and after a period of sleep deprivation, lasting about 31 hours.
After just one period of sleep deprivation, the subjects had a 5 percent increase in beta amyloids in their brains as shown in the scans. Most of the increases were seen in the hippocampus and thalamus, two regions of the brain most often damaged during the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Poor Sleep as a Signal of Alzheimer’s
It has long been known that poor quality of sleep is a common symptom or complication of Alzheimer’s disease. A new study may have pinpointed the reason and determined that changes in sleep could help doctors diagnose the disease earlier.
In the study from the Washington University School of Medicine, researchers found that older adults with less slow-wave sleep have higher levels of the tau protein in their brains. Slow-wave, or deep sleep, is the stage of sleep that helps us form memories and feel refreshed.
The researchers saw this effect in participants who either had no cognitive impairment or very mild impairment. This may indicate that a decline in deep sleep marks a transition into poor brain function and early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Another study published recently in Science demonstrated that deep sleep may trigger a cleaning system in the brain. The researchers found that the slow waves of deep sleep occur just before a pulse of fluid moves through the brain. This fluid may serve to clear the brain of toxic proteins. Too little deep sleep may interfere with this cleaning process, allowing the proteins to build up and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
The brain is complicated, and so is the relationship between sleep and how it functions. Alzheimer’s is not fully understood, nor are the mechanisms of sleep. But these recent studies highlight just how important good, adequate sleep is for brain health.
Avoid going for long periods of time without sleep, aim for seven to eight hours per night, and reduce distractions to help send your brain into healing deep sleep each night. Try the Relax Melodies meditation exercises to prime the brain for relaxation and better quality sleep.
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