Alzheimer’s and Sleep: How Poor Sleep Can Put You At Risk

by | Nov 30, 2021

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A bad night’s rest can make you feel tired and sluggish the next day, but can it potentially put you at risk of Alzheimer’s disease?

If you’re age 65 or above, it actually can. You may be surprised why your sleep puts you at higher risk of developing this brain disease. 

Fortunately, there are steps and key things you can do to get better sleep and potentially reduce your Alzheimer’s risk in the process. 

Before delving into the sleep and Alzheimer’s link, let’s review some important things you should know about Alzheimer’s disease first.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disease that causes cognitive decline, including problems with memory and behavior. 

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, and the condition makes up 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. 

Most people with Alzheimer’s disease are age 65 or older, but younger-onset or early-onset Alzheimer’s can occur in people under age 65.

Alzheimer’s is what’s known as a progressive disease, meaning its symptoms only get worse the longer you have it, and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. 

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

What Causes Alzheimer’s disease?

The exact causes of Alzheimer’s aren’t fully known, but at its most basic, Alzheimer’s is caused by your brain proteins not working properly— this impacts how well your neurons, or brain cells, work, which causes them to lose connection with each other and die off.

Alzheimer’s disease can also be caused by genetic factors, lifestyle factors, and environmental factors that affect your brain over time.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

Common signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Memory loss— especially if it disrupts daily activities
  • Cognitive impairment, including difficulty with problem-solving, or trouble completing normal tasks
  • Changes in mood or personality
  • Developing problems with writing or speaking

Some forgetfulness or cognitive decline are normal parts of aging, however, mild cognitive impairment can be indicative of Alzheimer’s disease, or a sign that you’re at risk. For some, normal cognitive impairment never worsens, but if it does get worse it’s likely a sign of neurological conditions.

Common Sleep Problems for Alzheimer’s Patients

Sleep changes are a normal part of aging, but people with Alzheimer’s disease often experience many sleep issues beyond that. Because of the disorder, these sleep issues can be more severe and complex than they would be normally— poor sleep can worsen Alzheimer’s symptoms like restlessness, delusions, and wandering, which in turn can make getting a good night’s sleep difficult.

Circadian rhythm disruption, or disruption of the sleep-wake cycle, is also common— this can cause Alzheimer’s patients to sleep too much during the day and too little at night. Not sleeping enough at night can not only impact sleep quality and cause excessive daytime sleepiness, but it can worsen memory loss.

Sleep is vital to preserving your memory, but Alzheimer’s sufferers spend less and less time in REM sleep and deep slow-wave sleep, which further affects their memory loss.

Sleep disorders are often common in Alzheimer’s patients as well, including restless legs syndrome (RLS) and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

So with all this in mind, how does your sleep affect your risk of Alzheimer’s disease?

Sleep disruption is common as you age, and changes in your cognitive function can result from poor sleep. However, a recent study published in the JAMA Neurology journal has found that how long older adults sleep each night could affect their brain health and their risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

This study observed 4417 older adults with normal cognitive function to see if there was a connection between sleep duration, beta amyloid burden, and their effects on cognition. Participants that reported short sleep duration— six or fewer hours of sleep each night— had elevated levels of beta amyloid, or a protein created during normal brain activity. Elevated levels of this protein are often a sign of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Those who slept poorly also performed worse on cognitive tests than participants that slept well. However, it’s important to make sure you don’t sleep too much at night either. Participants who slept 9 hours or more each night performed better than sleep-deprived participants, but not as well as those who slept the recommended 7-8 hours.

Sleeping too much can be just as bad for you as sleeping too little— while doing it occasionally isn’t cause for concern, consistently oversleeping can be a sign of health issues including sleep disorders. 

Related: Are You Oversleeping? 10 Causes of Excessive Sleep

Beta Amyloid and Alzheimer’s Disease

One theory about why Alzheimer’s occurs is called The Amyloid Hypothesis. In Alzheimer’s patients, beta amyloid, also called amyloid-β, begins to build up in the brain. This protein begins to clump up and create plaques, which can disrupt brain cell activity. 

When enough of these plaques exist, brain cells can degenerate and eventually die. When these cells stop working, your cognitive function suffers, and you begin to experience the memory loss and cognitive struggles associated with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Beta amyloid can begin building up in your brain even before you display symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but proper sleep may help limit the production of this protein, and keep it at normal levels in your brain.

How to Sleep Better at Any Age

When it comes to your potential Alzheimer’s risk, prevention is better than the cure. Here are our 5 suggestions to help you get better sleep at night and reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, regardless of your age.

1. Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices

A healthy lifestyle can help prevent many health problems, reduce the symptoms of any that already exist, and help you sleep better. A few changes you can make that add to a health-conscious lifestyle include:

  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet— be sure to consume plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and sources of lean protein like nuts, beans, and fish.
  • Avoid nicotine and tobacco.
  • Reduce your consumption of alcohol or caffeine. Caffeine’s stimulant effects can keep you awake at night if consumed too close to bedtime, and drinking alcohol too close to bed can worsen snoring.
  • Exercise. An active lifestyle can help keep your weight in a healthy range and keep your body working as it should. Regular moderate exercise can also help reduce the severity of obstructive sleep apnea symptoms, as well as reduce your risk of getting OSA.

2. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene is the term used to describe your good pre-bedtime habits. Proper sleep hygiene is vital to making sure you get the sleep you need each night— poor sleep hygiene can contribute to short sleep duration, sleep deprivation, and feeling tired during the day.

Some good sleep hygiene practices to add to your nightly routine include:

  • Putting your electronic devices— including smartphones, tablets, computers, and televisions— away at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted by these devices inhibit your body’s melatonin production, and can make it harder to fall or stay asleep.
  • Give yourself time to finish your day’s tasks before you settle in for the night. We recommend doing this 1 to 2 hours before bed.
  • Allow yourself time to relax and unwind before bed— this works especially well after you complete your daily to-do list. Yoga, writing in a journal, chatting with family members, or reading a book are all great ways to relax.
  • Tend to your personal hygiene, such as taking a bath or shower, washing your face, or brushing your teeth.

3. Follow a Consistent Sleep Schedule

A consistent nighttime routine and sleep schedule can help your body train itself to be alert or tired whenever you need it to be.

To do this, make sure you go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time every morning. It’s crucial that you do this daily, even on weekends, or on days where you don’t have a set schedule.

This consistency helps create long-term sleep quality, so even if it’s tricky to get into the habit, sticking with it will be a huge help in the long run.

4. Increase Your Light Exposure

It can be hard to feel bright and alert if you’re constantly indoors or working in a dark environment. Your circadian rhythm is influenced by light exposure, particularly sunlight. When the sun rises each morning, it cues your sleep-wake cycle to prepare you for the day. When the sun sets, your body prepares itself for sleep. The cycle begins anew each morning.

Spending time outside in the morning’s natural light is a great way to wake you up and help you feel ready to take on the day. This is because sun exposure signals your brain to produce less melatonin, which helps you stay awake and alert during the day. As it gets darker, your brain produces more melatonin to help you sleep.

Another option is what’s known as light therapy. Light therapy involves sitting or working near a special light source that mimics natural outdoor light. Special light therapy bulbs or lamps are widely available in home goods stores, as well as online.

We recommend using specialty bulbs from Biologic Lighting or the Journi mobile task light.

Light therapy can be especially helpful for people who typically sleep during the day, such as night shift workers. It’s also helpful for treating sleep disorders, jet lag, and mental health conditions like depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD)— a type of depression most common during fall or winter when there is significantly less sunlight each day. It’s also used to treat dementia.

Whether you spend time outside in the morning or try light therapy, aim for at least 30 minutes of light exposure per day for best results.

5. Get Tested for Sleep Disorders

If you’re sleeping through the night and you still wake up feeling exhausted, then it’s likely that you have a sleep disorder. Recent research indicates a strong connection between obstructive sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s disease.

 If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or a sleep expert about potential treatment options.

  • Loud snoring, or sleep disordered breathing— gasping, choking, or breathing cessation during sleep
  • Disrupted sleep, such as waking up during the night or waking up too early in the morning
  • Consistently needing more than 30 minutes to fall asleep each night
  • Sleeping too little, or sleeping too much

It can be difficult to tell if you’re experiencing sleep-disordered breathing, especially if you live alone. If you’re not sure if your symptoms put you at risk for sleep apnea, check out our quiz. It can help you figure out your symptoms so you can discuss them with your doctor or a sleep expert.

Don’t wait to get tested for sleep disorders— they won’t go away on their own, and the sooner you seek treatment, the sooner you can get back to sleeping well.

Related: What Makes Sleep Apnea Worse? 8 Things to Watch Out For

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Alzheimer’s disease, but getting a good night’s sleep is one of the simplest ways we can reduce our risk for the disease.

If you’re having a hard time sleeping, contact us at the Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee today. No matter your age, we can help you get back to the deep, restful sleep you need to feel sharp and alert each and every day.

References

“What Is Alzheimer’s?” Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia, www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-alzheimers.

Joseph R. Winer, PhD. “Association of Sleep Duration with Amyloid-β Burden and Cognition.” JAMA Neurology, JAMA Network, 30 Aug. 2021, jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/article-abstract/2783664.

“Beta-Amyloid and the Amyloid Hypothesis.” Alzheimer’s Association, Mar. 2017, www.alz.org/national/documents/topicsheet_betaamyloid.pdf.

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