At present, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. However, more and more, neuroscientists are finding ways to help defend against this irreversible and progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and the ability to think. One solution could be as simple as adequate sleep. A new study that has reportedly found a way to gauge when Alzheimer’s will most likely strike in a person’s lifetime has people asking: could burning the midnight oil lead to Alzheimer’s?
Here’s what happens to your brain when you sleep
There’s a science to sleep, and what happens during the time you close your eyes and wake up is incredible. Prior to the 1950’s, it was thought that sleep was something you did to rest your body and calm your mind, with most scientists believing that your brain went dormant. But nothing could be further from the truth. When you sleep, your brain is involved in several activities necessary for optimum quality of life, suggests neurologist Mark Wu, M.D., Ph.D., and sleep expert for John Hopkins Medicine. During the time that you sleep, your brain cycles frequently through two diverse types of sleep: Rapid-eye movement or REM sleep and non-REM sleep.
Although REM sleep was once believed to be the most vital part of sleep — for learning and memory — research now suggests that non-REM sleep is the more important faze for memory. It’s now also believed to be the more restful and restorative phase of sleep. Non-REM sleep happens between being awake and falling into a deep sleep. Once you move beyond deep sleep is when REM sleep takes over. That’s when your eyes begin to move rapidly under closed eyelids. But interestingly, what also happens during REM sleep is your brain waves become similar to those when you are awake. The cycle repeats over and over again, about four to five times. However, with each new cycle, you spend less time in the deep sleep stages and more time in REM sleep.
Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia
Just like coronary artery disease is a heart disease, Alzheimer’s is a brain disease. In fact, it’s a type of dementia — the most common kind — and afflicts between 60 to 80 percent of people with dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s a progressive and degenerative disease that worsens over time. Because Alzheimer’s involves the part of the brain that controls memory, thought, and language, it begins with mild loss of memory and leads to an inability to do simple communication tasks like carrying on a conversation. In addition, it can severely affect someone’s ability to perform daily activities. The telltale signs of Alzheimer’s disease are the buildup of plaques (beta-amyloid) on the brains and neurons. These toxic plaques are accompanied by neuron death and brain tissue damage. Sadly, Alzheimer’s progresses slowly, beginning years prior to the onset of symptoms, which is why neuroscientists are working hard to understand the disease. But while the road to finding a cure has been long, a recent study has opened the door that could possibly mark the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease on the human brain.
The link between Alzheimer and sleep
Neuroscientists Matthew Walker and Joseph Winer from Berkeley University have come up with a way to gauge when Alzheimer’s will most likely strike in a person’s lifetime — and the link is sleep. Your body craves sleep. As your day progresses, your body needs to sleep more and more. When it reaches that critical point, it shuts down. Sleep is vital, and if you don’t get enough sleep, your health is at risk. Not enough sleep equals zero energy. Without proper sleep, symptoms of high blood pressure and migraines worsen, so does depression and seizures. Even immunity is compromised, increasing your risk of illness and infection. And, when it comes to Alzheimer’s, research now shows that the amount of sleep you’re getting is like a glimpse into the future. Your sleep patterns can warn you when and how fast Alzheimer’s will progress in your brain. Here’s what the experts have to say:
When you experience deep sleep, the brain sort of “washes itself,” suggests Dr. Walker, senior author of the study published in the journal Current Biology. But don’t wait until it’s too late. Burning the midnight oil or pulling all-nighters could be doing more damage than you estimate. However, by getting more quality sleep earlier in life, Walker believes you could turn back the “Alzheimer’s clock.”
During the study, researchers looked at the sleep quality of 32 healthy adults. They compared it with the buildup of plaque (beta-amyloid) in their brains — the toxic substance that plays a key role in the onset and development of Alzheimer’s. The study found that those who began experiencing breaks in sleep patterns with less time in non-rapid eye movement sleep were most likely to show an increase in buildup beta-amyloid. And, even though all study participants were healthy throughout the study period, their beta-amyloid growth was directly linked to sleep quality. Thus, researchers were able to determine the increase of toxic plaques, which are believed to signal the start of Alzheimer’s. So, rather than just waiting for dementia to set in years down the road, researchers can now look at a person’s sleep quality to determine how quickly the plaque accumulates in the brain over time, marking the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease.
The takeaway — get better sleep
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one out of every three adults living in America do not get enough good-quality sleep, needed to protect their health and ward off disease. To avoid injury and promote good physical and mental health, you need about seven hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. How can you do that?
- Try to go to bed at the same time each night and set your alarm to wake up at the same time each morning — even on the weekends.
- Don’t nap after 3 p.m., and don’t nap longer than 20 minutes.
- Skip the after-dinner coffee, and avoid alcohol in the evening.
- No smoking or vaping nicotine.
- Exercise regularly, but not two to three hours before bedtime.
- Have your main meal before 7 p.m.
- Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and comfortable — not too cool or warm.
- Creating a routine like reading, listening, or mindful meditation may help you relax before bed.
- Turn off all screens (computer, smartphone, television) at least an hour before bed.
- Don’t lie in bed unable to sleep. If you can’t fall asleep, read, listen to soft music, or meditate.
We now know that proper sleep may help ward off Alzheimer’s, so it’s essential you get yours.