Science Reveals How Poor Sleep Might Raise Your Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

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New research is helping scientists explain the association between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s disease. Just try not to let it keep you up at night.

The findings of a study recently published in the academic journal Brain indicate that even for healthy middle-aged people, one night of disrupted sleep causes an increase in amyloid beta, a brain protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

One week of disrupted sleep causes an increase in tau, a brain protein linked to brain damage in neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The senior author of the study, Dr. David M. Holtzman, who heads the Department of Neurology at the Washington University School of Medicine, explains:

“We showed that poor sleep is associated with higher levels of two Alzheimer’s-associated proteins. We think that perhaps chronic poor sleep during middle age may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s later in life.”

Prior studies have linked poor sleep with an increased risk of cognitive problems, but researchers had yet to understand exactly how poor sleep damages the brain.

The recently published study was conducted by researchers from Washington University as well as Stanford University and Radboud University in the Netherlands.

The study participants were 17 healthy people ages 35 to 65 who had no sleep problems or cognitive impairments. They spent time in a sleep lab, where researchers used a series of beeps to disrupt the deep sleep of half the participants.

You shouldn’t necessarily worry about one night or even one week of disrupted sleep, though. One of the co-authors, Dr. Yo-El Ju, an assistant professor of neurology at Washington University, notes that it’s unlikely that a short period of poor sleep would have much effect on your overall risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Your levels of amyloid beta and tau probably go back down the next time you get good sleep.

The researchers’ main concern is people with chronic sleep problems. Ju says she believes chronic sleep problems may lead to chronically elevated amyloid levels. Animal studies have shown that chronically elevated amyloid levels lead to an increased risk of amyloid plaques on the brain and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.

Ju also notes that the study was not designed to determine whether getting more or better sleep would decrease your risk of Alzheimer’s, however. She concludes:

“Many, many Americans are chronically sleep-deprived, and it negatively affects their health in many ways. At this point, we can’t say whether improving sleep will reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. All we can really say is that bad sleep increases levels of some proteins that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. But a good night’s sleep is something you want to be striving for anyway.”

A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in May examined the effects of sleep deprivation in mice. It found that sleep deprivation can effectively cause the brain to eat itself, New Scientist reported.

The study findings suggest that lack of sleep can prompt cells known as astrocytes to break down brain synapses by eating these brain connections and their debris. Astrocytes are glial cells, which comprise the brain’s housekeeping system.

If you’re plagued by poor sleep, don’t miss “17 Affordable Tips to Help You Sleep Like a Baby.”

To learn more about fighting off or facing Alzheimer’s disease, check out:

Do you worry about your quality of sleep, or lack thereof, causing health problems for you later in life? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page.

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