This bad habit may be increasing the risk of Alzheimers (and it’s not the amount of sleep you get)
The spectrum of our intellectual and emotional states, from curiosity, learning, exploration, and innovation to joy, happiness, love, and sadness all stem from that wonderful clump of neurons no larger than our two fists pressed together; intricate, tiny, fragile, and magnificent.
Go ahead, hold your two-fisted hands together palm to palm and behold the entirety of what and who you are, all magnificently encased in that small space.
Your iPhone suddenly looks paltry in comparison, right?
It takes only 3% of the brain’s mass to atrophy for dementia to set in and in the most severe cases that number reaches 8-10%. That’s about as much as one of your fingers.
It doesn’t seem like much, but few things are as hard to witness as the slow progression and inevitable outcome of that long decline from 3 to 10%. I saw it in my mother’s decade long struggle with one of the more horrifying of dementia’s causes.
While there are many underlying conditions and diseases that can lead to dementia (which refers to the symptoms rather than the cause), Altzeimers is the overwhelming cause, responsible for about 60-70% of all cases.
“Just one night of deep-sleep disruption was enough to increase the amount of amyloid-beta, a protein that clumps into brain cell killing plaques in people with Alzheimer’s.”
So, what if I told you that research recently found that just one night of this bad habit has been proven to increase levels of the protein that is thought to be primarily responsible for the neural plaques that lead to Alzheimers?
According to the journal Science News researchers found that “Just one night of deep-sleep disruption was enough to increase the amount of amyloid-beta, a protein that clumps into brain cell killing plaques in people with Alzheimer’s. People in the study who slept poorly for a week also had more of a protein called tau in their spinal fluid than they did when well rested. Tau snarls itself into tangles inside brain cells of people with the disease.”
Lack of sleep has long been associated with Alzheimer’s, although it’s not entirely clear which is the cause and which is the consequence. In other words, it may be that the otherwise healthy sleepers used in the study who responded negatively to interrupted sleep may have an early form of the disease not yet diagnosable. Although, that does not seem to be the case from what researchers indicated after testing the subjects involved prior to the study.
What’s especially interesting about this research is that it’s not the overall amount of sleep but the amount of quality sleep that seems to be the determining variable in the amount of amyloid-beta protein present afterwards. The research actually target what’s known as Slow Wave Activity (SWA), a period of deep sleep that is much more restful than REM. So, a fitful nine hours could be worse than 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
That got me to thinking about the bad habit I have of often falling asleep with the TV on and tuned to my favorite late night talk show as I doze off.
I’ll wake during the infomercial time slot from 3-5 am, from what feels like a deep slumber, and soon realize that my sleeping brain was actually working overtime to very adeptly integrate ThighMasters, Sham Wows and the latest in hair replacement into my dreams.
That’s pretty much how the researchers interrupted the sleep of participants. They used auditory stimuli to disrupt their SWA deep sleep just before its onset. The sounds weren’t enough to wake participants but enough to stop the progression to SWA deep sleep.
Regardless of how much sleep they got the participants who were disrupted and had less SWA showed elevated levels of amyloid-beta after just one night. Those who had a lower quality of sleep for a week also had increased levels of another culprit protein, Tau.
Of course, none of this is definitive. It’s one study on an incredibly complex disease about which we likely still have a great deal to learn.
Still, if you’re doing anything regularly that might interrupt your sleep or if you’re not doing things that will help avoid interruptions, you may want to think twice.
Personally, I’ll do anything I can to protect my own two-fisted clump of neurons health for as long as possible.
Although my dreams may end being much more mundane.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.