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Sleepless Nights? They May Cause More Than Just Fatigue
One night of too little sleep might make you feel fatigued, irritable, groggy, and maybe even hungry, but studies show that the consequences of a night of poor sleep may be even more serious. Numerous research has shown that individuals with poor sleep patterns, or sleep apnea, are at an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. How does this happen? Let’s explore the possible explanations for this increased risk.
Disrupted Sleep May Not Allow the Brain to Clear Plaques
One possible explanation for the association between reduced sleep and increased risk for dementia is that without sleep the brain may be unable to clean and repair itself. Recently, researchers in Wisconsin conducted a study in which the participants slept in a controlled environment. They were either allowed to sleep normally or they had their sleep interrupted throughout the night, while researchers tracked the sleep. Then, in the morning, researchers analyzed participants’ spinal fluid to assess levels of biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s. What they found was astonishing!
Individuals who had slept poorly for this one night had higher levels of the protein amyloid. Amyloid is a naturally occurring protein found in the brain. However, if this protein reaches abnormal levels, it may clump and form plaque which can disrupt proper cell functioning and signaling in the brain. Researchers suggest these increased levels of amyloid in participants who had their sleep interrupted may be driven by the reduction of the time these individuals spent in slow wave or “deep sleep”. They hypothesize that the brain may use the deep sleep phase to clear out any excess of amyloid proteins. So without this deep sleep phase, these proteins may accumulate and lead to an increased risk of developing dementia.
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Disrupted Sleep May Lead to Oxygen Deprivation in the Brain
Another possible explanation for the association between sleep and dementia is related to the levels of oxygen in the brain. Studies have found that there is an increased risk of dementia when the brain does not get a sufficient supply of oxygen. When an individual has healthy sleep patterns, their body maintains an ample supply of oxygen throughout the night. In fact, we often think of oxygen deprivation as a side effect of asthma attacks, carbon monoxide poisoning, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
However, oxygen deprivation can also be caused by sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder in which a person does not breathe normally while sleeping. When individuals with sleep apnea experience decreased oxygen levels regularly, it significantly increases their risk for developing dementia.
Nevertheless, individuals who experienced disrupted sleep, but did not experience decreased oxygen level did not show an increase in the risk of developing dementia. This led researchers to conclude that it may be the oxygen deprivation that was the significant factor. The lack of oxygen during sleep may provoke dementia to develop more quickly.
What does this all mean?
So, does this mean that if you do not sleep enough you will absolutely develop dementia? No. However, it could mean you are at an increased risk. If you feel like you are regularly sleeping less than you should, or if you think you may have sleep apnea, it is important to talk to your medical provider. And most of all, prioritize sleep as a healthy habit in your life. Your brain will thank you.