Why Do Sleep Disorders Increase the Risk of Alzheimer’s?

a man struggling to go to sleep

Sleep is more than just a time to rest. In fact, during sleep, your brain is very hard at work, flushing out daily buildups of cellular debris and toxins. This cleansing process enables key functions of the body, from immune system response to appetite control, and contributes to cognitive health, memory, and learning. In other words, sleep is necessary to repair the brain and body overnight.

However, when sleep is disturbed, as occurs in the case of sleep disorders, health complications often follow. As many as 70 million Americans experience some type of sleep disorder, which can be associated with mental health disorders like anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and ADD/ADHD.

In the short term, a lack of quality sleep can make you feel irritable, stressed, or unable to concentrate. “Without sleep, the brain struggles to consolidate memories and absorb new knowledge,” says Dr. Shane Creado, a sleep medicine physician and psychiatrist at Amen Clinics.

In the long term, it may elevate the risk of serious conditions, including neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

Here, we will explore various types of sleep disorders, how sleep problems are linked to Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, and how to overcome sleep issues to promote better health.

A brain SPECT scan can help identify the abnormally low blood flow pattern associated with Alzheimer’s disease up to 9 years before the onset of noticeable symptoms. Click To Tweet

HOW SLEEP PROBLEMS ARE LINKED TO ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE

“We now know that memory loss and sleep disruption are directly related to each other,” says Dr. Creado, the author of Peak Sleep Performance for Athletes. Many studies have explored the bidirectional relationship between sleep disturbances and AD—that is, sleep disorders may increase AD risk or occur as a result of Alzheimer’s.

A review of studies published in Neurobiology of Disease noted that less sleep increases amyloid beta peptide production and the release of the protein tau. Simultaneously, there is decreased clearance from the cerebrospinal fluid, which also promotes amyloid plaque buildup and tau pathology.

This leads to neurodegeneration and synaptic/neuronal damage that contributes to sleep disturbances. Existing research suggests that the underlying pathology in AD may be associated with a buildup of:

  • Beta amyloid plaques between the neurons (brain cells), which interrupts neuronal communication
  • Tangles of abnormal tau protein that accumulate inside the neurons

Unfortunately, too many Americans struggle with getting a good night’s sleep. The International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD) groups sleeping disorders into six major categories:

  • Insomnia disorders
  • Sleep-related breathing disorders
  • Central disorders of hypersomnolence
  • Circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders
  • Parasomnias
  • Sleep-related movement disorders

According to a study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, those who have Alzheimer’s disease are most likely to exhibit sleep breathing disorders and restless legs syndrome (a sleep-related movement disorder). “There is accumulating evidence suggesting that disordered sleep contributes to cognitive decline and the development of AD pathology,” researchers noted.

Alternatively, these sleep disturbances may be early warning signs of AD, occurring before other symptoms appear.

Meanwhile, a systematic review and meta-analysis published in Sleep Medicine Reviews found that, compared with individuals who did not experience sleep disturbances, those who reported sleep disturbances showed a higher risk for all types of dementia, including AD and vascular dementia.

Another study that tapped 10 years of U.S. data from adults age 65 and older found that sleep-initiation insomnia (difficulty falling asleep) may elevate dementia risk. In addition, researchers found that sleep-medication usage may also increase risk. To help prevent these negative side effects, we will explore natural ways to overcome sleep disturbances below.

ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE-RELATED SLEEP DISORDERS

While a variety of sleep issues can occur in conjunction with AD, here are some worth noting:

  • Sleep-disordered breathing includes the common condition of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which affects an estimated 30 million Americans. It’s characterized by loud snoring at night, often interrupted by snorting or gasping.

These constant sleep disturbances can lead to fatigue and irritability—and potentially harmful impacts to memory, according to numerous studies. When the brain is unable to carry out its overnight cleansing process, the beta amyloid plaque buildups that are seen with AD are more likely to develop.

  • Sleep-related movement disorders, such as restless legs syndrome, are defined by the ICSD as a category of sleep disorder in which repetitive movements interfere with sleep. The Sleep Foundation notes that these movements are usually not elaborate (such as sleepwalking), but smaller motions like jerks or twitches.

Still, these small movements can lead to a significant amount of sleep disturbance over time, and they’re relatively common. Between 7% and 10% of the population is thought to have restless legs syndrome.

One study, published in 2023 in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, determined a link between restless legs syndrome and an increased risk of all types of dementia, including vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

HOW TO OVERCOME SLEEP ISSUES

If you’re experiencing any of the above disorders, or any sleep disturbances at all, it’s a good idea to seek targeted medical help to establish the root of the problem.

For example, brain SPECT scans can help identify the abnormally low blood flow pattern associated with AD up to 9 years before the onset of noticeable symptoms.

Brain changes associated with dementia are found in more than half of those who die from Alzheimer’s disease, so an early look at these changes can help improve treatment and life expectancy. SPECT can also be used for early detection of sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea.

And, regardless of our risk for Alzheimer’s disease, we should all aim for adequate, high-quality sleep every night. “Your brain health can’t be optimized unless your sleep is optimized,” says Dr. Creado.

The good news is that several simple lifestyle changes can increase our chances for better sleep and reduce the symptoms of destructive sleep issues like OSA. Here are some suggestions:

  • Maintain a healthy weight by eating a well-balanced diet that’s high in fiber and includes healthy fats. Exercise on a regular basis, but also make sure to move your body throughout the day, such as stretching or taking a brisk 10-minute walk outside.
  • Avoid stimulants in the late afternoon and evening. This includes caffeinated beverages like coffee, as well as chocolate and nicotine. You’ll also want to avoid cocktails, wine, and beer, since alcohol wreaks havoc on sleep.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Take steps like avoiding electronics an hour before bedtime and sticking to a sleep schedule. If needed, try utilizing sleep-inducing supplements like time-release melatonin, valerian root, magnesium, 5HTP, GABA, and/or inositol.
  • Mind your sleep position. Sleep apnea symptoms can worsen while sleeping on your back, so try sleeping on your side, with your head slightly elevated on a pillow. People with restless legs syndrome often recommend sleeping on the side, adding a pillow between the legs for added support.
  • Engage in calming pre-bedtime rituals. To ease your body and mind before bed, read a relaxing book, take a hot bath, meditate, or listen to soothing music. Journal about anything that might keep you up at night or interrupt your slumber. You can even introduce scents such as lavender, which is associated with better sleep and mood.

SLEEP HEALTH = BRAIN HEALTH

When you get quality sleep—and enough of it—each night, your brain will thank you. And so will the rest of your body, as your brain will be able to carry out the critical functions associated with maintaining optimal total health.

When sleep disorders and other sleep issues interfere with this process, it’s important to make lifestyle changes and seek out treatment that can help. Proper sleep will not only improve your day-to-day life, but your memory and cognitive abilities over the long haul.

Memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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