The Connection Between Alzheimer's and Sleep Deprivation

Learn what not getting enough sleep has to do with Alzheimer's disease

Lack of sleep is linked with Alzheimer's Disease

While we don't know everything about Alzheimer's disease—a brain disorder that degenerates memory and thinking skills—we are now a little closer to understanding what causes it. Studies over the past two years have shown possible indicators connecting sleep deprivation with the development of the disease.

If you have a loved one with Alzheimer's, or are at risk of developing it yourself, these studies can help you better understand the condition and possibly mitigate some of its worst effects.

What causes Alzheimer's disease?

While we are still learning exactly how Alzheimer's works, there are two key factors directly connected with the illness: amyloid plaques and tau tangles.

Amyloid plaques are comprised of the protein beta-amyloid. These proteins are a waste product that builds up in the cerebral spinal fluid, which is the fluid that covers the brain.

Studies have found that a healthy night's sleep —at least 6 hours—is important to flushing these beta-amyloid proteins out. Otherwise, they clump together to form amyloid plaques, which block communications between neurons.

This build-up of amyloid plaques begins in the thalamus and hippocampus, which are particularly vulnerable during the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

In April 2018, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study authored by Dr. Ehsan Shokri-Kojori, in collaboration with Drs. Nora D. Volkow and Gene-Jack Wang, on the effects of sleep deprivation and the development of amyloid plaques.

In their research, in which they tested 20 healthy adults, they compared the effects of one night of good sleep with 31 hours of sleep deprivation. In those participants that were sleep deprived, they found a 5 percent increase in beta-amyloid proteins, particularly in the thalamus and hippocampus.

This draws a clear connection between sleep deprivation and the development of amyloid plaques.

The other major contributor to Alzheimer's and dementia are tau tangles. Tau proteins naturally occur in the brain fluid, and are flushed out when sleeping. When people don't get enough sleep, the tau proteins don't flush out properly and become tau tangles.

That's the conclusion from one of the most recent studies on tau tangles from Washington University's School of Medicine. In those tests, the researchers injected mice with tau proteins and broke them into two groups. The first group was sleep-deprived, and the second set of mice were allowed to sleep whenever. The researchers found that the tau tangles spread more aggressively in the sleep-deprived mice than in the well-rested ones.

While more studies need to be done, these early tests definitely show connections between sleep deprivation and the early indicators of Alzheimer's. It may also suggest that healthy sleeping habits can prevent or, at the very least, slow the onset of Alzheimer's.

Healthy sleep habits

With this connection between sleep deprivation and the development of amyloid plaques and tau tangles, what steps can you take to get a better night's sleep? What exactly comprises a good night's sleep?

Well, getting more sleep is obviously an important factor. The base amount of sleep individuals need is 6 hours, but it's recommended to get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night. Sticking to a routine is also important for getting enough sleep. Once a routine becomes habit, your body's internal clock will adjust and you will naturally fall asleep quicker.

It's also advised to avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime. Caffeine prevents consumers from falling asleep, and therefore throws off any deep sleep they may have. Alcohol is a depressant, so it will certainly help users fall asleep. However, your body has to work harder to remove alcohol from your system during sleep, so there is no rest benefit in the time it takes to remove it.

Comfort is also a major factor. Obviously sleeping on a comfortable mattress has better effects than sleeping on one that's lumpy or too hard. What works best varies from person to person. Some people prefer firm beds to soft ones, etc. However, while there is a subjective quality to mattresses, there are also objective qualities to consider. Take the time to research the best mattresses to find which one works for you, or invest in a good-quality mattress topper.

With these new connections between sleep deprivation and Alzheimer's, it's more important than ever to prioritize one's sleep habits. Also consider the added benefits of better moods, more energy, and generally more enjoyment from life.

Resources—Cognitive Vitality, National Institutes of Health, Science Daily, National Institute of Aging