Can poor sleep increase your risk of Alzheimer’s?

by Dan A. Baron, Baron Law LLC

As an elder law attorney, I often engage with families struggling with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s. This disease is the most common form of dementia and is one that is devastating to endure for family members. We care about our seniors, and aside from the legal advice that our firm can offer, here are some interesting studies and suggestions that I hope benefit the readers on how to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Boston University School of Medicine
This study, conducted by a team from Boston University School of Medicine, was published in the journal Neurology. They determined that even a small loss of the dreaming phase of sleep, called REM or rapid eye movement sleep, can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
The Boston team studied 321 people over age 60 who volunteered for a sleep study in the 1990s. Over the next 12 years, 32 developed dementia and of those, 24 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Those who had just a little less REM sleep during the sleep test were more likely to be in the dementia group later. The difference in REM sleep was indeed slight — those who later developed dementia had only 3% less REM sleep than those who did not develop dementia. Most did not even notice the difference in their sleep. The next step will be to determine why lower REM sleep predicts a greater risk of dementia.”
Washington University in St. Louis
In the second study, published in the journal Brain, a team from Washington University in St. Louis reported that sleep disruption raised levels of amyloid, the protein that clogs the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. They believe that interrupted sleep may allow too much of unwanted compounds to build up and that sleep might help the body clear them away.
In this study, the team allowed their group of 17 healthy adults to sleep a normal amount of time but half were prevented from getting deep sleep, called slow-wave sleep. In the mornings, their spinal fluid was analyzed. Those who had their slow-wave sleep disrupted had an increase in their amyloid levels by about 10%. The volunteers also wore sleep monitors to measure their sleep at home. Those who slept poorly for a week at home had measurably higher levels of a second Alzheimer’s associated protein called tau.
Recent Developments in Treating Alzheimer’s
Currently, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. There are some new drugs in the works that aim to clear amyloid proteins out of the brains of Alzheimer’s patients in hopes of slowing the disease. But they are not even close to being a cure or even being on the market. The three drugs highlighted at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference are solanezumab, aducanumab and gantenerumab.
Solanezumab didn’t seem to help patients. But developers continued to follow those in the trials and discovered that those who got the drug early seemed to be doing better, while those who got the drug later could not seem to catch up. Aducanumab appears to be clearing the amyloid from the brains of patients and there is some evidence of improving test scores in patients who got the highest doses. Gantenerumab also failed in tests, but it may be that people were not given enough of it. An analysis did show it was affecting tau protein, but higher doses have caused brain inflammation (which could indicate the drugs are working), headaches, dizziness and, in other drug trials, death.
Can We Prevent Alzheimer’s?
There is no evidence that anything can prevent Alzheimer’s. But there are some things we can do to help slow memory loss and cognitive impairment. These include improving sleep quality, getting regular exercise, controlling blood pressure, engaging in cognitive training and changing eating habits.
Improve Sleep Quality: If you, your sleeping partner or a roommate suspect you have sleep apnea, get tested and follow through with any recommended treatment. Other sleep disrupters include restless leg syndrome, insomnia, jet lag, sleepwalking, night terrors, and stress. If your sleep suffers from any of these, talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist about steps you can take to start getting restful sleep.
Get regular exercise: Moderate aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, can have an effect on reducing cognitive impairment later in life. Experts say to aim for 150 minutes a week (30 minutes, five times a week). Exercise increases the blood flow to all parts of the body, including the brain, improves physical conditioning and lifts your spirits.
Lower your blood pressure: Controlling blood pressure helps prevent heart disease. There is also evidence it can reduce the risk of memory loss and dementia because high blood pressure damages delicate blood vessels in the brain.
Engage in cognitive training: According to Dr. Ronald Peterson, an Alzheimer’s expert at the Mayo Clinic, this doesn’t mean crossword puzzles or Sudoku, although those won’t hurt. Instead, he suggests working on memory improvement techniques, called mnemonic techniques. These can include finding a new way to remember a list of grocery items; figuring a tip in your head instead of using a calculator; using new strategies that will help you process and locate information more quickly and efficiently; and working on techniques that will help you remember names and other vital information.
Clean up eating habits: You probably know that sugary foods are not good for you. But did you also know that carbs turn into sugar in your body? And did you know that both can have devastating effects on your brain? Dr. David Permutter is a renowned neurologist. His book, Grain Brain, may provide some insights that just might change your life for the better.
Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease. There is no cure. Current medicines, when started early, only help with symptoms for a while and have no real effect on the disease itself. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves, our families and those we serve to do everything we can to protect our brains from Alzheimer’s for as long as possible and to educate others about how to do so. For more information or assistance with an elder law concern, contact Dan Baron at

Dan A. Baron, Baron Law LLC

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Opinions and claims expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of ScripType Publishing.