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As the scientific community studies sleep, a growing link between a lack of sleep and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) has appeared. While the quality and quantity of your sleep are not proven to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, there is mounting evidence that poor sleep and insomnia can increase a person’s risk of developing it later in life.

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are global health phenomenons. There are 50 million people estimated to have Alzheimer’s worldwide. In the United States alone, an estimated 5.8 million people are living with Alzheimer’s, and projections say the number could rise to 14 million by the year 2050. In 2019, the disease cost the United States $290 billion in related expenses and was the sixth leading cause of death.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is defined as a condition that kills neurons in the brain, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior. It is an irreversible, progressive disease that is the most common cause of dementia.

The Signs & Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

The signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear at different stages, with some showing up earlier than others. Each case is unique, and symptoms can vary, but there are a few common symptoms amongst AD diagnoses:

  • Serious memory loss
  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • Disorientation
  • Mood and behavior changes
  • Deepening confusion about events, time and place
  • Unfounded suspicion about family, friends and professional caregivers

Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that currently has no cure. To fully understand Alzheimer’s, it’s crucial to know how it develops in the brain.

What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease to Develop?

Alzheimer’s is usually a slowly developing disease. It can start almost two decades before any symptoms appear. AD develops from the degeneration of the mind. While there isn’t an exact cause for this erosion, it most likely originates from two types of protein in the brain:

  • Tau protein tangles- Tau is a protein that serves as a stabilization agent for microtubules in the brain. These support the pathways for nutrients and other vital substances from one part of a nerve cell to another.

Whenever a patient has Alzheimer’s disease, these tau proteins aggregate and tangle in the brain cells. This tangle causes the pathways they are supposed to support to become clogged and unable to transport the necessary substances and messages from cell to cell.

  • Beta-amyloid protein plaquing- Amyloid is a general term for protein fragments that the body regularly produces. Amyloid plaquing is whenever these fragments become clumped together and harden between neurons in the brain.

Beta-amyloid is stickier than other proteins, which makes it a prime suspect in causing buildups in the brain, especially the hippocampus (section that plays a major role in learning and memory). Once these proteins stick to a neuron, they block the signals the cell is trying to send to other neurons, which can cause it to die.

Neither of these proteins is inherently damaging as each one serves a purpose. However, when the brain is unable to clear out the excess tau and beta-amyloid, problems begin to occur.

Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease

The highest risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease are:

  • Age- If you are over 65 years old, your risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases significantly.
  • Family History- If your family members have had Alzheimer’s disease, your risk of developing it is higher.
  • Genetics- Along with family history, genetics have a significant role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Genetic involvement is especially prevalent in early-onset AD as mutations in specific genes, like a mutated Apolipoprotein E, can cause a substantial buildup of amyloid plaques early on.

The Link Between Alzheimer’s Disease and a Lack of Sleep

While sleep or lack thereof is not a direct cause of increasing your risk of Alzheimer’s, researchers have identified higher tau and beta-amyloid plaquing in those who are sleep deprived. Your brain relies on sleep to clear out excess proteins.

The Importance of Slow-Wave Sleep

Slow-wave or deep sleep is directly related to the clearing of excess tau and beta-amyloid. A study on deep sleep revealed a pattern in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that flows through the brain and spinal cord. Waves of CSF pulsed through the mind at the same rate that slow-waves appear during deep sleep. Whenever the brain was able to get a good night’s rest, it was ready to go through this entire process and clean out excess proteins.

High Tau and Beta-Amyloid Levels After Sleep Deprivation

Whenever your body is unable to go through the slow-wave cleaning cycle, it needs to clear toxins from the brain, higher levels of proteins reside in and around your neurons.

In a study on sleep deprivation and tau protein, researchers found that participants had a 17% increase in tau protein after a night of sleep deprivation. Not only is your brain unable to clear out the toxins it needs to, but experts also say your neurons secrete more tau whenever you’re awake for extended periods of time.

It is common to see individuals with Alzheimer’s disease have a difficult time getting the deep sleep they need for their brain to clear and restore itself.

Sleep is imperative for your body to recover and regenerate. Not only do you feel better, but you are healthier when you get the rest you need. A full night’s sleep isn’t a luxury; it’s necessary for your mental health.

Does Insomnia Cause Alzheimer’s Disease?

While insomnia isn’t proven to cause Alzheimer’s disease, a lack of sleep won’t help decrease your chance of developing it later on. Don’t take the growing evidence of the ties from insomnia to dementia lightly.

If you are having difficulty sleeping, don’t let insomnia keep you from getting the rest your brain needs. Contact a sleep expert at Somly today to see how we can help you get the good night’s sleep your mind and body need.

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