One Shocking Link Between Alzheimer’s Disease and Sleep

There is no cure, but you can take steps today to protect your brain health.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

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If you’ve been following me for a while, you know how passionate I can get about sleep and its health benefits, from your mental health to increased energy and even better skin. But now, more than ever, there’s an especially critical reason why sleep is so important: the surprising links between sleep and Alzheimer’s disease.

Age-related changes in sleep are normal, and all of us suffer from lack of sleep now and then, especially if we’re feeling stressed or are guilty of using smartphones at night. But excessive sleeping in, or dozing off during the day, could potentially point to signs of Alzheimer’s.

Before you worry too much, though, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about the connections between sleep and Alzheimer’s disease, action steps you or a loved one can take to reduce your risk, and changes in sleep that could be signs of Alzheimer’s.

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

No doubt you’ve heard about Alzheimer’s disease, and no doubt you tend to associate it with nursing homes and getting older. While both can be true, it isn’t the whole picture. In fact, Alzheimer’s Disease may not be exactly what you think it is or the way it’s portrayed in movies.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Disease

Dementia describes a general decline in cognitive functioning and can range from mild to severe impairment. In some cases, dementia is actually quite subtle. However, dementia goes beyond normal aging. Memory loss and changes in mood start affecting everyday functioning. In other words, losing your keys is normal; losing them every day when you have always been organized may not be.

Alzheimer’s Disease is a specific type of dementia. It’s progressive, and at this time, unable to be reversed. The disease gradually alters memory, everyday cognition, communication, and the ability to carry out everyday tasks.

Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease

Anyone can develop Alzheimer's disease, but we also know of several risk factors that make it more likely.

Age. As we age, we’re all at risk for all types of dementia.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, as many as one in nine people over 65 have Alzheimer’s. However, there is also the more rare early-onset Alzheimer’s, which can occur in people under 50 years old.

Genetics. Family history — if your mom or grandmother had it — makes you more susceptible. Researchers are still trying to find specific genes; the most success has been in identifying a gene receptor linked to the more rare early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Lifestyle. I stress so often just how important lifestyle factors are for better sleep and health, from getting in daily exercise to eating well and even taking time to relax. With any form of dementia, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, excessive alcohol, and a high-fat, high-sugar diet, which are also linked to cholesterol and type II diabetes, can put you at risk.

How Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Mimic Sleep Deprivation

One fascinating link between the most common form of dementia and sleep deprivation is how symptoms can mimic each other. With the early stages of Alzheimer’s, patients may suffer from short-term memory loss (like forgetting where you placed your wallet), increased irritability, and difficulty concentrating.

For someone with Alzheimer’s, not only do these symptoms get worse without additional treatment, but they also may become more specific, with other symptoms including having trouble carrying out routine tasks, understanding directions, and even changes to vision.

How Sleep and Alzheimer’s Are Related

Now let’s look at the many ways sleep disorders and lack of sleep can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. I’ll also touch on why it’s so important to be aware of sleep patterns when assessing your (or a loved one’s) risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Sleep Apnea and Alzheimer’s Disease: Are you, or is your partner, a chronic snorer? If you snore, there’s a chance you may suffer from sleep apnea, also known as obstructive sleep disorder, which could put you at an increased risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.

A two-year study in New York of just over 200 people, ages 50 to 90, found that those suffering from sleep apnea were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease. The reason? Sleep apnea causes a buildup of beta-amyloid in the brain, a toxic protein linked to dementia. Researchers found that the harmful protein buildup occurred during heavy snoring.

Lack of Sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease: I’ve talked at length about how sleep deprivation increases your risk of diabetes and takes a hit on your emotional health. But lack of sleep, whether it’s general insomnia or tied to a specific sleep disorder, also increases your risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Early studies have connected a lack of sleep with the same protein buildup as we see with those suffering from sleep apnea. In fact, one study found that a single night of sleeplessness can prompt amyloid accumulation. While one night of poor sleep doesn’t mean you’ll develop the disease, it does potentially increase your risk, especially in the case of chronic sleep deprivation.

Excessive Sleeping and Alzheimer’s Disease: Daytime sleepiness may also be an indicator of Alzheimer’s, according to a long-term study published in Sleep which concluded that those who are excessively tired were up to three times more likely to have protein build up in the brain, tied to Alzheimer’s Disease.

While that does not prove causation, the lessons here are clear: There are numerous links between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease.

How to Naturally Reduce Your Risk for Alzheimer’s (and Manage Symptoms)

The bad news: There is no cure for Alzheimer’s.

The good news: Researchers continue to look into promising medications and treatment options. By diligently managing our sleep and diet, we can potentially reduce our risk and even help manage symptoms. Here are my tips.

  • Prioritize sleep.
  • Get your snoring under control.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Track your sleep.

Just as lack of sleep can increase your risk for Alzheimer’s, I’ve also discussed how changes in sleep patterns, including deep and REM sleep, can be a symptom of Alzheimer’s Disease. The problem? We may feel tired but it can be hard to pinpoint why, or what about our sleep is changing.

The bottom line is we can’t prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. But following these tips, and understanding the links between sleep and both risks and symptoms, can help you take steps today to protect your brain health.