Sleep and Aging: The Alzheimer’s Link

As you get older, sleep seems to come at a premium even when you’re very tired.  Around age 50, a few factors start to work against you sleeping soundly through the night.  As a result, you may be going through your days in a constant state of being tired, grumpy and having low energy. But that’s not the worst of it.  New research shows that lack of sleep could bring on Alzheimer’s disease and may even be a very early sign of it.  Here’s what you should know…

Prevent Alzheimer’s: Get More Sleep Every Night

Sleep is actually an amazing event that should occur every night for several hours a night.  It’s one of the biologic methods your body has to keep it healthy.  During sleep, every organ, bone, muscle, tissue, cell, etc undergoes repair.  To complete this repair, your body needs to “shut down” for at least 6-8 hours at a time.  Without this down time, your body can’t completely repair/restore you on the cellular level.

Your brain undergoes quite an impressive restoration during sleep.  It actually “washes” itself in its fluids.  Doing this on a nightly basis helps cleanse the brain of toxins, like certain proteins, that can cause memory loss and other cognitive problems.  One of these proteins is amyloid, the substance associated with the characteristic brain plaques of Alzheimer’s.

Recent research out of Washington University in St.  Louis has found that lack of sleep, on a chronic basis, directly contributes to the development of Alzheimer’s.  It does this through the buildup of these amyloid proteins in brain tissue.

In a kind of Catch-22 situation, these plaques also further contribute to even poorer sleep which almost certainly ensures the development of Alzheimer’s.  Poor sleep is now, the researchers think, a very early sign of Alzheimer’s, long before memory deficits are apparent.

The study found that participants with a sleep efficiency rating less than 75% were 5 times more likely to have early Alzheimer’s without memory issues.  They felt that sleep screening in younger persons would allow finding these early cases sooner.  Treatment started at this early point could help the disease from progressing to memory damage.  In addition, improved sleep in Alzheimer’s patients would indicate that treatments are helping.

In other similar research, University of California at Berkley researchers found that the amyloid proteins disrupted the deep sleep cycle.  This is when brain repair takes place.  A key part of that brain repair is the restoration of memory neuron cells.  Without this process, these cells breakdown and anything stored in them can be lost.

You might liken this nightly process to saving work on your computer.  Deep sleep helps to save your “work” from the day.  This includes anything you’ve learned, experienced, felt, etc.  Without enough sleep to cleanse the amyloid proteins from your brain, these temporarily held “files” can be deleted before your brain has a chance to save it.

You can prove how valuable sleep is to your memory, and thinking in general, just by going without sleep for one night.  The next day, you’ll not only be tired, but your memory, word finding ability, problem solving, etc will be impaired and much slower.  Then multiply this 1 day result by months of chronic sleep deprivation to understand how truly devastating lack of sleep can be to your brain function.

Get Better Sleep

If you’re experiencing poor sleep, there are a few things you can do on your own to improve it.  Let me outline 6 of the most helpful:

  1. Cut down caffeine. You don’t need to stop drinking coffee or tea, or cocoa, in fact they have many health benefits.  Simply stop drinking them 3-4 hours before your bedtime.
  1. Exercise. Exercise helps your body release stress as well as improve oxygen intake, both beneficial to your brain health.  Get at least 30 minutes of “stress busting”, oxygen-boosting exercise everyday.  This includes brisk walking, bicycling, swimming, etc., outdoors if possible.
  1. Nutrition. Your brain needs B-complex vitamins to function properly. Deficiency is very common in over-50 age people as your nutrient absorption slows down.  Take a digestive enzyme with a B complex supplement to help absorb more B12, B6 and folate.
  1. Stress/Depression. Poor sleep can be caused by life problems that keep nagging at you.  Seek professional help for these issues if they chronically hamper your sleep.
  1. Melatonin. Every one over 50 should take melatonin as you become deficient in it the older you get.  It can make all the difference between restorative and restless sleep.  It also boosts overall health in many ways.

The following dosing chart is taken from The Melatonin Miracle by Dr. William Pierpaoli.  You may need to tweak these doses slightly higher or lower.  Too little and you still may not sleep well.  Too high and you may feel groggy and in a fog the next day.

Age                 Dose
40-44               0.5 to 1 mg
45-54               1 to 2 mg
55-64               2 to 2.5 mg
65-74               2.5 mg to 5 mg
75 plus             3.5 to 5 mg

  1. Environment. Your bedroom could be a detractor to sleep itself.  Position your LED alarm clock away from your face.  The red light it emits can trigger your brain to stay awake.  Is your room too cool or too warm? Use blocking shades, curtains, to keep light from waking you too early.  Is noise a problem?  Remedy the source, if you can, or use earplugs.

With the wave of Baby Boomer-aged folks reaching 60 across the country, researchers think that Alzheimer’s disease could become the fastest growing health concern.  It’s already been diagnosed in 40 million Americans.

But you don’t have to be one of the statistics.  Ensuring that you get enough sleep every night is critical to your present, as well as your future, brain health.  If you’re having problems sleeping, try some of the ways listed above and see if they help.  If you’re still experiencing sleep problems, see your doctor to determine the problem.

About Dr. Mark Rosenberg

Dr. Mark A. Rosenberg, MD Dr. Mark Rosenberg received his doctorate from Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1988 and has been involved with drug research since 1991. With numerous certifications in several different fields of medicine, psychology, healthy aging and fitness, Dr. Rosenberg has a wide breadth of experience in both the public and private sector with particular expertise in both the mechanism of cancer treatment failure and in treating obesity. He currently is researching new compounds to treat cancer and obesity, including receiving approval status for an investigational new drug that works with chemotherapy and a patent pending for an oral appetite suppressant. He is currently President of the Institute for Healthy Aging, Program Director of the Integrative Cancer Fellowship, and Chief Medical Officer of Rose Pharmaceuticals. His work has been published in various trade and academic journals. In addition to his many medical certifications, he also personally committed to physical fitness and is a certified physical fitness trainer.
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