The Connection Between Alzheimer’s and Sleep

October 26, 2021

Sleep disorders are so prevalent in the United States that the CDC has declared insufficient sleep a public health problem. Seventy million Americans have chronic sleep problems, at least 50 million Americans have been diagnosed with a sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and about 30 percent of the population over 18 experiences insufficient sleep.

Insufficient sleep doesn’t just lead to excessive daytime sleepiness that affects functioning: It’s also associated with several severe medical conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, and mental health concerns like depression and anxiety. Sleep problems are also associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Let’s dive into the connection between Alzheimer’s and poor sleep.

Alzheimer’s and Sleep Changes

Those with Alzheimer’s commonly report problems with sleeping as a result of the disease. This is partly because many people with the disease experience changes in their sleep patterns. They may also be more likely to experience other conditions that can worsen sleep problems—such as depression, OSA, and restless legs syndrome. Not only can these conditions make it harder for individuals to fall asleep, but they can also wake them up throughout the night.

Many of those with Alzheimer’s also experience drowsiness throughout the day, causing them to nap regularly. This can shift their sleep cycle and leave them unable to sleep at night. In these cases, people with this disease and other forms of dementia can experience what is known as sundowning, which includes increased confusion, anxiety, agitation, pacing, and disorientation in the evenings and throughout the night. Due to these influences, many people with Alzheimer’s do not get enough sleep to function properly as they spend their days sleeping and nights unable to do so.

Sleep Deprivation and the Risk of Developing Alzheimer’s

Research also suggests that there may be a connection between poor sleep and the onset of Alzheimer’s. According to one study, chronically getting insufficient sleep—less than six hours a night—could increase your risk of developing dementia. The study results showed that insomnia was associated with a significant risk of developing dementia in older age individuals.

Similarly, those with Alzheimer’s disease have a higher presence of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain. Even in those individuals who are cognitively healthy, the existence of amyloid plaques correlates with poor sleep quality, which means getting insufficient sleep is associated with the formation of these plaques. In cases of a brain with Alzheimer’s, these plaques form between neurons to disrupt cell function. While the exact development of Alzheimer’s due to these plaques is unknown, these manifestations are among the most common things found in individuals with dementia.

Tau tangles, also known as neurofibrillary tangles, are abnormal gatherings of protein that collect inside neurons. While tau proteins usually stabilize the structures of a healthy neuron, in Alzheimer’s disease, they detach and stick to each other, forming threads that eventually tangle inside neurons to block the transport system. This makes communication between neurons more difficult, if not impossible. These plaques and tangles of proteins most commonly accumulate in the brain regions involved in memory, and as it continues to clump between neurons, it can spread throughout the rest of the brain.

What You Can Do to Improve Sleep

Getting a good night of sleep is beneficial for your health for more reasons than improving your cognition and memory and helping you prevent Alzheimer’s. Not only can it help you fight off chronic health concerns like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, but it can also improve your mental health, immunity, and productivity.

If you’re looking to improve the quality of your sleep, consider implementing a few of the following tips:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule: Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including the weekends. This will reinforce your body’s sleep-wake cycle.
  • Pay attention to what you eat and drink: Avoid heavy meals, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, which can take hours to digest without affecting your sleep.
  • Include exercise in your daily routine: Regular physical activity can promote better sleep.
  • Facilitate a relaxing bedroom environment: Create a cool, quiet, and dark bedroom to help you fall asleep at night. You could also consider using blackout curtains, earplugs, or other devices to promote relaxation.
  • Avoid exposure to light before bedtime: Exposure to light, including light-emitting screens, can make it more challenging to fall asleep.
  • Manage excessive worrying: Consider journaling before bed to resolve your worries or concerns before bedtime. Other stress management techniques like meditation may also ease excessive worrying and anxiety.

If you implement these changes to your bedtime routine and see no results or changes in the quality of your sleep, consider contacting your doctor or dentist specializing in sleep and airway. While everyone has an occasional sleepless night, if you regularly have a hard time sleeping, there may be an underlying cause that needs to be addressed. Treating these concerns can help you get the great sleep you deserve.

While the exact connection between sleep and Alzheimer’s is uncertain, there is evidence to support that there may be a strong correlation between the two. Not only do those with Alzheimer’s regularly experience shifts in their sleep schedule, but regular insufficient sleep may also contribute to the formation of amyloid plaques and tau tangles, which are commonly found in brains with Alzheimer’s. If you’re having trouble sleeping, you don’t have to suffer through it. Making changes to your sleep hygiene or reaching out to your doctor could provide the support you need to make that significant improvement to your health.