In a recent study at the University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere, researchers found that getting plenty of deep, restorative sleep may offer a defense against Alzheimer’s disease.
They found a way to estimate, with some degree of accuracy, a time frame for when Alzheimer’s is most likely to strike in a person’s lifetime.
The researchers say that the sleep people are having right now is almost like a crystal ball telling when and how fast Alzheimer’s pathology will develop in the brain.
The study is published in Current Biology. One author is Matthew Walker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience.
In the study, the team tested the overnight sleep quality of 32 healthy older adults in their 60s, 70s, and 80s against the buildup in their brains of the toxic plaque known as beta-amyloid.
Beta-amyloid is a key player in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s, which destroys memory pathways and other brain functions and afflicts more than 40 million people worldwide.
Their findings show that participants who started out experiencing more fragmented sleep and less non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) slow-wave sleep were most likely to show an increase in beta-amyloid over the course of the study.
Although all people remained healthy throughout the study period, the trajectory of their beta-amyloid growth correlated with sleep quality.
The researchers were able to forecast the increase in beta-amyloid plaques, which are thought to mark the beginning of Alzheimer’s.
In addition to predicting the time it is likely to take for the onset of Alzheimer’s, the results reinforce the link between poor sleep and the disease, particularly critical in the face of a tsunami of aging baby boomers on the horizon.
While previous studies have found that sleep cleanses the brain of beta-amyloid deposits, these findings identify deep non-REM slow-wave sleep as the target of intervention against cognitive decline.
And though genetic testing can predict one’s inherent susceptibility to Alzheimer’s, and blood tests offer a diagnostic tool, neither offers the potential for a lifestyle therapeutic intervention that sleep does, the researchers point out.
If deep, restorative sleep can slow down this disease, scientists should be making it a major priority.
And if doctors know about this connection, they can ask their older patients about their sleep quality and suggest sleep as a prevention strategy.
The researchers offer these tips to improve sleep quality:
Maintain a regular sleep routine, going to bed, and waking up at the same time each day.
As part of a nightly wind-down routine, avoid viewing computer, smartphone, and TV screens in the last hour before bedtime, and keep phones and other digital devices out of the bedroom.
Engage in some form of physical exercise during the day.
Get exposure to natural daylight, especially in the first half of the day.
Avoid stimulants, like caffeine, and sedatives, like alcohol, later in the day.
If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do a relaxing activity away from the bedroom, such as reading in dim light. Only return to bed when you’re sleepy.
Get screened for sleep apnea if you are known to be a heavy snorer and/or feel excessively tired during the day.
Consult your doctor if you are experiencing insomnia, and inquire about cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI).
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