If there’s one thing we’re all losing sleep over in our golden years, it’s memory loss.
Because chances are, your life is being directly impacted. Maybe it’s a family member… your spouse… your neighbor… or even yourself.
Even worse? Memory loss doesn’t just show up overnight. Instead, it can creep up on you or a loved one over months or even years.
Luckily, scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital have identified a vicious cycle that could be among your first clues that Alzheimer’s is on the horizon. And it has everything to do with how you’re sleeping.
We’ve talked about sleep and memory loss a number of times before in this publication. We’ve reported how a good night’s sleep is critical to brain health and that napping can be “bad” or “good” for the brain depending upon when and how long you nap. Now, there’s new information on the napping front…
A Predictor of Alzheimer’s Disease
A new report, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, shows a link between daytime sleep, memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.
The recent research confirms the correlation between excessive daytime napping and an increased future risk of Alzheimer’s. What’s more, if you already have Alzheimer’s disease, the illness can increase your need for a daytime nap as you age.
In this first-of-its-kind napping study, the researchers tested two hypotheses:
- Seniors nap longer and/or more frequently as they age and these changes speed up with the onset of Alzheimer’s.
- Seniors who frequently nap during the day have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
For the research, scientists from Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and University of California, San Francisco, used data from the ongoing Rush Memory and Aging Project (MAP) which included more than 1,000 seniors (average age of 81).
All participants were given a sleep tracker that they wore for up to two weeks. This data was then used to identify and calculate how often and for how long the seniors were napping.
Through the research, the investigators found a link between daytime napping and Alzheimer’s disease.
Additionally, the research revealed that taking longer and more frequent naps was a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s in cognitively normal seniors. In fact, the results were so strong that the study authors describe the relationship between daytime napping and Alzheimer’s as a “vicious cycle.”1
The Vicious Alzheimer’s Cycle
“The vicious cycle we observed between daytime sleep and Alzheimer’s disease offers a basis for better understanding the role of sleep in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults,” said Peng Li of the Medical Biodynamics Program in Brigham and Women’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders.
“Our results not only suggest that excessive daytime napping may signal an elevated risk of Alzheimer’s dementia, but they also show that faster yearly increase in daytime napping may be a sign of deteriorating or unfavored clinical progression of the disease. Our study calls for a closer attention to 24-hour sleep patterns — not only nighttime sleep but also daytime sleep — for health monitoring in older adults.”
The Napping-Alzheimer’s Connection
As we’ve reported before, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have found that the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease can attack areas of the brain that are responsible for keeping us awake during the day.
As tau, a type of protein, collects in the brain in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, it destroys the neurons that are supposed to keep us alert. Under normal circumstances, tau is configured to attach to parts of the brain which supply nutrients to neurons. As Alzheimer’s progresses, the tau detaches from these parts and forms the twisted tangles that damage neurons.
The research team examined autopsies that compared the brains of people who died having normal cognitive function to those of folks who had Alzheimer’s. They found tau buildup in three brain centers involved in wakefulness – the locus coeruleus, the lateral hypothalamic areas and the tuberomammillary nucleus – in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Similar buildups were not present in healthy brains.
What’s more? In the dementia victims these areas had lost up to 75 percent of their neurons!
“It’s remarkable because it’s not just a single brain nucleus that’s degenerating, but the whole wakefulness-promoting network,” says researcher Jun Oh. “Crucially this means that the brain has no way to compensate because all of these functionally related cell types are being destroyed at the same time.”2
How to Break the Cycle
If you or a loved one is suffering from chronic daytime sleepiness, it’s time to start looking for signs of cognitive decline.
And to prevent, slow and even help treat Alzheimer’s disease (and the napping that can cause it), you should start with your lifestyle. Get regular night time sleep and regular exercise. Eat a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet which includes cutting out processed foods like packaged foods, cookies, and lunch meats. These foods are linked to the build-up of tau proteins. Replace these foods with fresh produce, lean meats, extra virgin olive oil and omega-3 supplements. These lifestyle changes help protect, nourish and energize your brain… not harm it.