The effects of poor sleep can include changes in mood and thinking difficulty, which can be bothersome, but for years, people have thought that missed sleep every now and then is nothing to worry about. However, research is now starting to suggest that individuals who typically get less than six hours of sleep per night may be at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Purpose of Sleep
Sleep used to be viewed as a time for the body as well as the brain to rest after working all day. However, it turns out that sleep is not just a time for rest. In fact, research is now showing that our brains are engaged in a variety of activities while we sleep, and this activity helps maintain brain health.
For instance, as we sleep, the glymphatic system removes waste products, proteins, and toxins from the central nervous system. This is important because beta-amyloid, which is a portion of a larger protein called amyloid precursor protein (APP), accumulates in the brain during waking hours. Described as a sticky chemical, it is a metabolic waste product, and it is hypothesized that if it is not removed on a regular basis, beta-amyloid can accumulate over time, leading to the development of amyloid plaques.
Amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, are thought to disrupt communications between neurons as well as activate immune cells that cause an increase in inflammation, which ultimately destroys the cells in the brain. This nightly clearing of beta-amyloid from our brains via the lymphatic system is thought to help prevent the development of plaques and any resultant neuronal damage.
In addition to research showing an elevation of beta-amyloid levels in the brains of sleep-deprived mice, several studies suggest that sleep plays an important function in removing beta-amyloid from the human brain as well. For example, researchers at NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) investigated the effects of getting a poor night’s sleep on the brain’s ability to remove potentially harmful waste, toxins, and proteins.
This study utilized positron emission tomography (PET) to investigate the link between sleep and beta-amyloid. Participants included 20 healthy individuals in the age range of 22 to 72. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2018, the results showed that beta-amyloid increased approximately five percent after one night of sleep deprivation. Interestingly, the changes occurred in the regions of the brain that include the hippocampus and thalamus, both of which are typically damaged during the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Additionally, participants who experienced larger increases in beta-amyloid experienced a more noticeable decline in mood following sleep deprivation. These findings support earlier research showing mood disorders result from damage to the thalamus and hippocampus.
Although researchers have not yet proven that poor sleep causes Alzheimer’s, evidence is beginning to mount in support of the hypothesis that sleep disturbances, such as disrupted sleep patterns or sleep apnea, might increase an individual’s risk for developing the disease. Conversely, it is also posited that sleep disturbances might be an early sign of Alzheimer’s. However, more research is needed to determine if sleep disturbances cause changes in the brain that increase the risk for developing Alzheimer’s or if the disease causes brain changes that result in disrupted sleep.
It is important to understand that a good night’s sleep requires both quality and quantity. For instance, it is recommended that anyone over the age of 18 consistently sleep between seven and eight hours per night. In terms of quality, it is recommended that you get seven to eight hours of consecutive sleep as opposed to taking naps during the day. The reason consecutive sleep is important is because it allows you to experience all stages of sleep each time you sleep. Additionally, it is important to note that it is a common misconception that people require less sleep as they age. In fact, sufficient sleep each night is required regardless of a person’s age.
Poor Nightly Sleep
It is purported that the nervous system and areas of the brain responsible for memory are maintained during REM sleep. As such, it is important to understand that when sleep issues occur, REM stages are often skipped, leading to a variety of problems. In fact, sleeping poorly on a consistent basis has been linked to a variety of health issues including thyroid dysfunction, diabetes, and weight gain. Poor sleep can also affect your mental status, and the changes that occur can include an increased risk for developing depression and anxiety as well as dementia, impaired memory, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Fortunately, there are a variety of things you can do to ensure you experience a good night’s sleep on a regular basis.
During the Day
One of the best things you can do to help ensure you get a good night’s sleep is to get outside and get moving. Exercise and fresh air have been shown to reduce stress and burn off excess energy, leading to a better night’s sleep. Additionally, the vitamin D your body absorbs from the sun helps keep your sleep patterns consistent by helping to regulate your sleep cycle.
A nightly routine can go a long way in helping you consistently achieve a good night’s sleep. For instance, developing a routine that helps your body wind down from the day can help you relax. Writing in a journal, for instance, or reading can make it much easier to fall asleep. Even a warm bath can help.
Designing your bedroom for sleep is another key factor in developing a successful nightly routine. To achieve this, you should be sure to keep the temperature at a comfortable setting, ensure your pillows and linens are comfortable, and minimize or eliminate electronic gadgets. Finally, even if you are up late the night before, you should be sure to wake at the same time each day as this will help your body learn when to sleep and when to awaken.