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Sleep Patterns May Help Identify Early Signs Of Alzheimer's Disease

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy
June 18, 2019

Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. with 5.7 million Americans living with it. While there is no cure, prevention and early diagnosis are critical to slow the progression of the disease. As researchers work to understand the causes of the disease, which is likely a blend of genetic and lifestyle influences, they're also uncovering signs that may indicate the risk of it down the line.

We know that poor sleep quality is linked with Alzheimer's1, but the reasoning behind it still remains mostly unknown. To better understand this link, a new study published in JNeurosci compared sleep waves in the brain to the levels of the proteins characteristic of the disease. They found that specific sleep patterns in older men and women may predict which Alzheimer's proteins build up later on in life.

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Alzheimer's is associated with an increase of tau, a protein in the brain that can damage our memory cells, as well as higher levels of β-amyloid, a component of amyloid plaques present in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

These proteins can be present way before the person exhibits impaired cognitive functioning such as loss of memory, making them essential markers for early diagnosis. The study found that a decrease in slow brain waves (necessary for building memories) was linked with more of the tau protein, and less slow-wave-activity amplitude was linked with higher β-amyloid levels. These sleep patterns are visible on EEGs, making it possible for them to act as early indicators of the disease. Also, they found that less sleep from ages 50 to 80 was connected to a buildup of more proteins.

These findings suggest that sleep patterns in the brains of older people, as well as their sleep quality as they age, may indicate a risk of developing Alzheimer's. Knowing more about this link opens the possibility for preventive care or early diagnosis and potentially better health outcomes.

"I don't expect sleep monitoring to replace brain scans or cerebrospinal fluid analysis for identifying early signs of Alzheimer's disease, but it could supplement them," said Brendan Lucey, M.D., first author and an assistant professor of neurology and director of the Washington University Sleep Medicine Center in a statement. "It's something that could be easily followed over time, and if someone's sleep habits start changing, that could be a sign for doctors to take a closer look at what might be going on in their brains."

Besides testing sleep patterns, protein levels, and monitoring sleep, there are preventive lifestyle measures you can take as you age. We know getting quality sleep is essential for brain health and may reduce your risk of Alzheimer's, so try to improve your sleep experience with these simple tips.

Consider incorporating more movement into your routine as research shows that exercise supports healthier cognitive functioning, including better memory and a longer attention span. You can also eat in a way that supports your brain. mbg Collective member David Perlmutter, M.D., recommends reducing your intake of sugars and refined carbs along with upping your intake of healthy fats and foods that are high in fiber.

While more research is needed to determine whether testing sleep quality is a viable option for early Alzheimer's detection, it's promising that there may be an easier, less invasive way to screen for the disease in the future.

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