Not getting enough sleep could increase your risk of Alzheimer's

Not getting enough sleep doesn't feel good — and could have some scary long-term consequences.

Insufficient or poor-quality sleep has been shown to wreck short term memory, cause weight gain, and increase the risk of diseases ranging from depression to cancer. And according to a study newly published in the journal Neurology, bad sleep is also associated with the presence of more biological signs of Alzheimer's disease.

The researchers behind the study found that late-middle-aged adults who reported poor sleep had more biomarkers of Alzheimer's disease in their cerebrospinal fluid.

Scientists analyzed 101 adults with an average age of just under 63 for this study (so the sample size is fairly small). Researchers collected spinal fluid samples from each participant to check for tangled protein buildups, inflammation, and damaged cells that are related to Alzheimer's.

The participants all had some increased risk for Alzheimer's due to their family history and genetic factors, but all were cognitively healthy. Researchers found that age differences within the group didn't seem to affect levels of Alzheimer's biomarkers in those studied. However, the individuals who reported not sleeping well, having sleep problems, or feeling sleepy during the day had significantly more signs of the disease in their spinal fluid.

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It's impossible to say at this point whether poor sleep is causing the increase in Alzheimer's markers, or whether the fact that these individuals' brains are changing is what's causing them to have poor sleep. In fact, both are likely true — not getting enough sleep could increase Alzheimer's risk, and the factors in the brain that lead to Alzheimer's probably make it hard to get good sleep.

One of the functions of sleep is to wash neurotoxins from the brain. These toxins include proteins that build up and are associated with Alzheimer's. Previous research has also shown that bad sleep leads to a buildup in the brain of beta-amyloid proteins, which are also strongly associated with Alzheimer's and can worsen sleep.

The researchers behind the study say that better measures of sleep quality and sleepiness during the day could help scientists learn more about the relationship between Alzheimer's and sleep.

At the same time, they write that improving sleep should be considered a priority since it might be a way to stave off cognitive decline.

"[S]leep health may be a tractable target for early intervention," they concluded in the study.

In an accompanying commentary published alongside the study, two other doctors — Adam Spira of Johns Hopkins University and Dr. Yo-El Ju of Washington University — emphasized the potential benefits of facilitating better sleep.

"Effective interventions are available to treat causes of poor sleep, so identifying and treating sleep disturbances in preclinical [Alzheimer's disease] may be a critical strategy to prevent or delay impending cognitive decline," they wrote.

That should be some serious motivation to try to get more sleep.

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