By Eugena Brooks, Patient Advocate
June is awareness month for brain health and disease. As in many things, sleep plays a distinctive role in healthy brain function and the development of issues. All of us know that a night of bad sleep can impair our ability to think the following day. However, research also suggests that chronically getting too few hours of sleep (6 or less hours per night) may also increase your risk of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and dementia.
AD is a brain disorder that affects a person’s thoughts, memory, speech, and ability to carry out daily activities. With AD the loss of brain tissue that leads to loss of mental abilities may also disrupt the sleep/wake cycle, which may cause sleep problems, nighttime wandering, and agitation.
Age is the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s. It mainly affects people over 65. Above this age, a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles about every five years. One in six people over 80 have dementia – many of them have Alzheimer’s disease. A build-up of beta amyloid is linked to impaired brain function and Alzheimer’s.
Impaired sleep has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that sleep plays a role in clearing beta-amyloid out of the brain. Moreover, lack of sleep has been shown to elevate brain beta-amyloid levels in mice indicating that sleep deprivation increases the protein that causes Alzheimer’s. Scientists believe that for most people, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect the brain over time.
Less than 1 percent of the time, Alzheimer’s is caused by specific genetic changes that virtually guarantee a person will develop the disease. Patients with more advanced AD rarely sleep for long periods. Rather, they doze irregularly throughout the day and night. Circadian rhythms – the daily cycling of body temperature, sleep, wakefulness, and metabolism – are sometimes disrupted in older adults. Evidence suggests that these disruptions may be worse in patients with AD, and that AD patients may lose the ability to stay asleep or keep alert as the disease progresses.
Sleep problems may also increase agitation among AD patients, according to the results of at least one study. The best way to avoid Alzheimer’s is to eat a healthy diet, exercise and maintain good sleep habits.
Lim, Miranda M et al. “The sleep-wake cycle and Alzheimer’s disease: what do we know?.” Neurodegenerative disease management vol. 4,5 (2014): 351-62. doi:10.2217/nmt.14.33