There are numerous factors that can raise your risk of ending up with Alzheimer’s disease down the road, from uncontrolled blood sugar and obesity to lack of exercise, high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure.
Yet, while the risk factors for the disease are well-known, predicting who will actually get it — much less when it will strike — has so far been out of reach for the most part.
In fact, while testing for the so-called “Alzheimer’s genes” is available, not everyone who has the genes actually fall prey to the conditions. And not everyone who is diagnosed with the disease has the genes.
This has left people everywhere wondering, “Will I get Alzheimer’s? And if so, how soon am I going to start losing my memory?”
Well, research is not only on a path to answering those questions but also providing important insight into a key component to preventing the disease by “washing your brain.”
Overnight sleep quality
The research, conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, set out to compare the overnight sleep quality of 32 healthy older adults to the level of buildup of the toxic plaque known as beta-amyloid in their brains.
This plaque is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s and is known for its role in destroying the memory pathways as well as other brain functions, leading to the symptoms of the disease that we’re all so familiar with.
Throughout the multi-year study, the researchers tracked the growth rate of the beta-amyloid protein using PET scans, matching the growth to each individual’s sleep profile. The team monitored everything from brain activity during deep slow-wave sleep to sleep efficiency — the actual time you spend asleep versus just lying in bed tossing and turning.
And they found that sleep quality is a clear biomarker able to predict the development of Alzheimer’s disease down the road. In fact, their findings showed that participants who started out experiencing more fragmented sleep and less non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep were most likely to show an increase in beta-amyloid over the course of the study.
Even more importantly, they found that monitoring sleep quality can deliver an estimate of the actual timeframe for when Alzheimer’s is most likely to strike.
“We have found that the sleep you’re having right now is almost like a crystal ball telling you when and how fast Alzheimer’s pathology will develop in your brain,” said Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience.
The good news
Not only does this study show us that there is an indisputable connection between sleep and Alzheimer’s and give us a more accurate way to predict the onset of the disease than genetic testing, it gives us something that genetic testing never could — a way to possibly prevent Alzheimer’s from developing in the first place!
According to Joseph Winer, neuroscientist and lead researcher, “If deep, restorative sleep can slow down this disease, we should be making it a major priority,” Winer said. “And if physicians know about this connection, they can ask their older patients about their sleep quality and suggest sleep as a prevention strategy.”
That means starting today, you should focus on your sleep quality and getting the deep, high-quality sleep you need now to help prevent Alzheimer’s in the future.
The first step is taking control of your sleep by setting a bedtime routine and creating a supportive sleep environment. These tips from the National Institutes of Health can help:
- Go to sleep at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning. Try to keep the same routine, even on the weekends.
- Don’t take naps after 3 p.m. and don’t nap longer than 20 minutes.
- Stay away from caffeine and alcohol late in the day.
- Avoid nicotine completely.
- Avoid exercising within 2-3 hours of bedtime.
- Don’t eat a heavy meal late in the day.
- Make your bedroom comfortable, dark, quiet and not too warm or cold.
- Follow a routine to help you relax before sleep (for example, reading or listening to music). Go ahead and lower the lights (to help your sleep hormone, melatonin, start doing its job).
- Turn off the TV and other screens at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light from these devices can make it harder to fall asleep.
- Don’t lie in bed tossing and turning if you can’t fall asleep after at least 20 minutes. Try a calming activity until you feel sleepy, like reading or listening to soft music.
- Talk with a doctor if you continue to have trouble sleeping, especially to rule out any problems that may disturb your sleep, like sleep apnea.
Additionally, you might want to pamper yourself in the evening with a soothing cup of decaf herbal tea, like chamomile. Melatonin is also a good choice for a natural and non-addictive sleep aid.
Alzheimer’s genes: Are you at risk? — Mayo Clinic
Alzheimer’s disease — Mayo Clinic