Most people know that getting enough sleep is good for their general health. Scientific research now shows that getting enough quality sleep may be an important factor in preventing the feared degenerative Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, researchers reported Monday that levels of the protein, beta-amyloid, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, are linked with a person’s memory performance and sleep. The research comes at a time when researchers are desperately racing to find a cure and/or effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease as the baby boomer generation begins turning 70 next year.
Presently, greater than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s and that number is expected to more than double by 2050. As changes that lead to the development of Alzheimer’s can begin more than 20 years before noticeable memory lapses, scientists are studying drugs in individuals at high risk of the disease with the hope of finding preventive treatment.
Researchers have indicated that sleep disruption is a new area of study relative to Alzheimer’s and that it clearly increases the risk of developing the disease. The new research indicates that sleep problems interact with Alzheimer’s disease processes. Toxic proteins, in turn, affect the deep sleep that is very important in memory formation. It is a vicious cycle.
Dr. Matthew Walker of the University of California, Berkeley and his team gave PET scans to 26 healthy volunteers in their 70s with no signs of cognitive impairment. The scans measured the buildup of amyloid that occurred while the patients slept in a controlled atmosphere overnight. During the study, the patients were given words to memorize and, as they slept overnight, scientists measured the patients’ brain waves. The findings showed that the more amyloid people stored in a particular region of the brain, the less quality, deep sleep they got, and the more they forgot overnight. According to Walker, the memories of those individuals who got poor sleep were not transferred adequately from their brains’ short-term memory bank into long-term memory storage.
Another study followed approximately 6,000 individuals over a five-year period and results showed that those who had poor sleep quality (consisting of frequent tossing and turning and a general hard time falling asleep) were more likely to develop mild early cognitive impairment that sometimes leads to Alzheimer’s.
Researchers also found that the condition known as sleep apnea (in which people suffer brief interruptions of breathing that awaken them repeatedly without them knowing) caused a twofold increase in the risk of a person developing Alzheimer’s.
Ultimately, this groundbreaking research shows that people at risk of Alzheimer’s should be screened by their doctors for sleep disorders, especially sleep apnea, which can be treated effectively. Maria Carrillo, the chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, stated that “[t]here are lots of risk factors that we might be able to change. Sleep is one.”