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Studies Appear to Link Disrupted Sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease

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Could it be that losing sleep might add to your risk of developing dementia? Or are patterns of sleep interruption not actually a cause, but an early indicator of future cognitive impairment? Either way, two recently reduced studies are adding to the growing body of evidence that healthy sleep and a healthy brain are somehow linked.

This article, for example, appeared just a few weeks ago on the NBC News website. It’s called “Poor Sleep Raises Alzheimer’s Risk,” although the title sounds a bit more definitive than the article itself.  The article, written by health reporter Maggie Fox, begins, “There’s more evidence that losing sleep can raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s the latest in a series of studies that show even a little sleep loss can add up to a greater risk of Alzheimer’s, the leading cause of dementia.”

The NBC News piece quotes a study just published in the professional journal Neurology. In the study, conducted by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine, analysts looked at the health outcomes for 321 people over the age of 60 who had volunteered for a sleep study during the 1990’s. During the 12 years after the study, 10 percent of the group developed dementia, most of whom were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found what appeared to be a correlation, fairly small but still significant, between lack of REM sleep and the development of cognitive impairment. (REM sleep refers to the “dreaming phase” of sleep characterized by rapid eye movement – “REM.”) The less REM sleep observed in the study group, the greater the likelihood of developing dementia.

The big question is why this correlation exists. “Our findings point to REM sleep as a predictor of dementia,” said the study leader. “The next step will be to determine why lower REM sleep predicts a greater risk of dementia.” In other words, does poor sleep cause dementia or simply predict it?

It’s certain that people with dementia develop interrupted sleep, which often plays havoc with their families and other caregivers. It’s not uncommon for those suffering with dementia to be awake in the middle of the night, sometimes up and about doing things that are inappropriate, such as trying to cook a meal or pack a suitcase.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association website (, “Many people with Alzheimer’s experience changes in their sleep patterns.”  Sleep disruptions are fairly common even among older adults without dementia, “but these disturbances occur more frequently and tend to be more severe in Alzheimer’s. There is evidence that sleep changes are more common in later stages of the disease, but some studies have also found them in early stages.”

Another Maggie Fox article from the NBC News website (you can click here to read it) shed some light as to why sleep disruption and dementia might be linked. This article also referenced a scientific study, this one released a few months ago in the journal Brain, that demonstrated how a single night of interrupted sleep results in an increase in the brain proteins believed to cause Alzheimer’s disease. These researchers hypothesize that a good night of deep sleep helps the body clear away these brain proteins while interrupted sleep may allow too much of them to build up. One of these compounds, amyloid, is “the protein that clogs the brain of Alzheimer’s patients,” writes NBC’s Fox.

Doctors theorize that amyloid is produced during times of normal waking brain activity. When we enter deep REM sleep our brains stop producing this clogging compound and the “normal clearance mechanisms” can work as designed. But too much amyloid built up the brain increases the risk of clumps called plaques, which appear to be linked to various forms of dementia.

So what’s the take-away from articles like these? Until researchers come up with some clearer answers, and more effective treatments, dementia is still going to present us with more questions and speculation. Meanwhile, there are several healthy habits all of us – especially seniors – should adopt, habits that will not only help us feel better but may also prevent, or slow, the onset of dementia. No doubt you’ve heard this list before:

  • Get plenty of exercise, not only aerobic but also strength-bearing exercise.
  • Stay socially active – don’t allow yourself or a loved one to slip into isolation.
  • Quit smoking, and only use alcohol in moderation.
  • Get your blood pressure under control and keep it there.
  • Make sure your diet is healthy – some studies have shown that the Mediterranean Diet with less red meat and more healthy oils, vegetables, grains and seafood is better for the brain.
  • Get plenty of sleep, as the articles above suggests.

Is there any one type of medical professional who can help you accomplish all this? The answer is yes. Here’s another recommendation to add to that list: make sure you have a geriatrician in charge of your health care. As you age, your physical, mental and emotional needs change, so you need to make certain that a properly trained geriatric physician is the quarterback of your health team.  Please contact us here at AgingOptions so we can refer you to a geriatrician whose practice is near you.

What about planning for all other aspects of retirement? Do you have a plan in place that can help you protect your assets so matter what life throws your way? Are you able to say with assurance that you’ll be able to avoid becoming a burden to your loved ones? Do you know that you’ll manage to escape ending up being institutionalized against your will? The only plan that can help you face retirement with true confidence is an AgingOptions LifePlan. A LifePlan combines financial, medical, legal, housing and family plans all in one carefully crafted retirement blueprint. Why not take a few hours and find out more? Accept our invitation to attend a free LifePlanning Seminar near you. For details and convenient online registration, click here, or call us for assistance over the phone. We’ll look forward to meeting you at an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar soon.

(originally reported at

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