The scariest thing about bad sleep could be what it means for your brain

Fragmented sleep, marked by repeated wake-ups during the night and a need to nap during the day, could be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease, according to new research. 

A study recently published in the journal JAMA Neurology found that adults with healthy memories who had disrupted circadian rhythms — also known as sleep cycles — had protein buildups of a substance called amyloid plaque, which can serve as an early sign of Alzheimer's.

The damage that causes Alzheimer's-associated memory loss can begin 15 or 20 years before symptoms of the disease become evident. Other studies have shown that there's a connection between poor sleep and Alzheimer's or dementia as well. This new study provides more evidence of that link, and indicates that sleep disruption might be a very early warning sign of future neurodegenerative disease.

The findings also suggest that working to treat sleep issues early may help protect brain health down the road — though more research is needed to find out.

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11 common stress dreams and what they mean
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11 common stress dreams and what they mean

Trying and failing to run away

Lennox calls this scenario "stress dream 101." He said this dream is an "expression of generalized fear and anxiety" — though the specific object of fear will vary from person to person.

"I would say that the person who's having the dream probably has a greater generalized fear response to life than someone who doesn't have that dream," Lennox added. "Although it doesn't make the person pathologically challenged."

Bulkeley said he would ask the dreamer in this situation if anything in their life feels inescapable. Maybe the person is feeling weak or vulnerable in a conflict. Dreams often use "dramatic metaphors" for emotions that are hard to verbalize, he said.

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Being naked

Lennox said dreaming about being naked is a "perfect symbolic expression" of feeling like a fraud at work (also known as impostor syndrome).

Many people privately experience the fear that other people will find out that they don't really know what they're doing. Being naked at work could mean, Lennox says, that "I will be seen for who I really am. And that will be terrifying."

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Being unprepared for an exam

People commonly dream of being unprepared for a test in high school or college – even if they graduated years ago. And Lennox said it’s often triggered by performance anxiety at work.

High school and college "are the first places where we learn about responsibility and accountability. [The dream] will often recur when we’re faced with the same sense of pressure in our current waking life."

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Being unable to graduate college

Dreams about being unable to graduate translate to fears about not being ready to advance, particularly at work.

Lennox said, "The dream would be processing fears that someone else is ready and we're not, that we're going to be somehow passed over."

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Watching your teeth fall out

"Losing teeth is akin to insecurity," Lennox said.

Teeth have a few functions — they allow us to eat, but they also let us smile or snarl at other people. To lose your teeth "would be to not be able to feed and take care of yourself, feel loved, and be protected," Lennox said.

Another potential meaning? Because teeth are in the mouth, Lennox said this dream might come up when "being authentic, speaking up, or having a voice" feel challenging.

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Falling

This dream often occurs, Bulkeley said, around times of great uncertainty, when you "feel like you don't have adequate support or backing." Maybe something or someone in your life that was once your rock is now less stable.

In terms of work anxieties, Lennox said a dream of falling could reflect a lack of authority in the workplace.

"If you're dreaming of falling, look to the places in your work life where you feel like you're trying to exert some control that's unattainable."

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Seeing your loved ones die

"Death is a great symbol of change," Lennox said.

When someone dies in your dream, it might indicate that something about your relationship with that person is changing or growing. That change isn't necessarily negative, but a recurring dream about death might suggest that something about the transformation is scary.

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Forgetting to pack something

Lennox said this dream is fundamentally about feeling unprepared. "When we're unprepared, then we can't navigate a stressful situation effectively."

The dream might also represent a feeling of being out of control.

Interestingly, Lennox said dream scenarios are typically much higher-stakes than anything that happens in real life. For example, showing up to a business meeting and realizing you forgot to pack your laptop is arguably worse than feeling generally overwhelmed by the day-to-day demands in your life.

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Missing a flight

When you miss a flight in your dream, you're probably playing out a fear of missing a deadline in real life.

"In the world of working, there's nothing like a deadline as a supreme stressor," Lennox said.

Again, Lennox said everything is a crisis in dream world. Turning in a project report an hour late probably doesn't have the same consequences as missing an international flight by an hour.

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Forgetting to take care of a baby or pet

Babies in a dream are symbolic of new possibilities, Lennox said. If you dream about neglecting a baby, you might really be worried about that blog post you've been meaning to write or that hobby you've been hoping to start. Essentially, you're neglecting something in your life that needs your attention.

Pets, on the other hand, reflect joy and love. Lennox said someone who dreams about abandoning a pet might be "too stressed to do fun and lovely things for themselves" and might be feeling like "I'm missing out on cultivating and nurturing something that life has to offer."

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Driving

Bulkeley said cars and driving in dreams can have many meanings, but they often reflect our connections to other people.

If you're dreaming of speeding, for example, you might feel out of control in a personal relationship. On the other hand, if you're dreaming of being stuck in traffic, you might be feeling "adrift" in relationships, or life in general.

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A growing body of evidence

For the new study, researchers tracked the sleep cycles of 189 cognitively healthy adults with an average age of 66. They also analyzed their brains to look for Alzheimer's-related proteins and plaques.

Most of the participants had relatively normal sleep cycles, and 139 had no signs of amyloid protein buildup. Some of those people had sleep problems, but they could mostly be explained by age, sleep apnea, or other causes.

But the 50 subjects in the study whose brains had Alzheimer's-related proteins all had disrupted body clocks.

"It wasn't that the people in the study were sleep-deprived," lead study author Dr. Erik Musiek said in a press release. "But their sleep tended to be fragmented. Sleeping for eight hours at night is very different from getting eight hours of sleep in one-hour increments during daytime naps."

The researchers also disrupted the sleep rhythms of mice in another study and found that doing so led to a buildup of amyloid plaque in their brains.

Other recent research has shown that people who report sleeping poorly show more signs of Alzheimer's. One recent study found that even disrupting someone's sleep for a night could lead to a spike in Alzheimer's-related proteins.

To be clear, that doesn't mean that one night of bad sleep leads to Alzheimer's. But it does make sleep trouble even more disturbing than the tired feeling that lingers after a restless night — which is good motivation to fix poor sleeping habits.

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Foods that may prevent Alzheimer's, according to an expert
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Foods that may prevent Alzheimer's, according to an expert

Green leafy vegetables (and other veggies)

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Nuts

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Berries

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Beans

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Whole Grains

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Fish

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Poultry

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Olive Oil   

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Wine

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The issue of causation 

The big question that remains is whether bad sleep causes the protein buildup that's linked to Alzheimer's, or whether people whose brains are already changing have more trouble sleeping.

It's quite possible that both are true.

Some research has indicated that any sleep disruption seems to lead to brain changes (in mice and people). We know that sleep has a cleansing function and that in deep sleep our brain washes away some proteins that regularly build up.

But we also know that once these buildups exist, people have a harder time getting that cleansing deep sleep. In other words, regular poor sleep could lead to a vicious cycle that makes it harder to get the rest the brain needs.

The upside of all this is that it could mean that intervening to fix sleep problems early could lead to improved brain health down the road. There are plenty of reasons to try to get a good night's sleep — this seems to be an especially good one.

 

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