If someone has trouble staying awake late in the afternoon, it might be an early indicator that Alzheimer’s disease is around the corner.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota published a study today in which they say they have linked sleep disruption to a key biomarker for Alzheimer’s.
The researchers say disturbed sleep may allow amyloid proteins to accumulate in the brain, a process that can eventually lead to the fatal disease.
James Hendrix, PhD, director of global science initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association, said the research is important because it’s the first time these biomarkers have been so clearly linked to the disease formation.
Hendrix said scientists have long suspected there may be a connection between disrupted sleep and Alzheimer’s progression.
However, this research shows how the poor sleep patterns can cause the disease to develop.
“We can now see the biological changes affected by sleep,” Hendrix told Healthline.
What the study revealed
Prashanthi Vemuri, PhD, an associate professor of radiology in the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the Mayo Clinic, is one of the co-authors of the study.
She told Healthline her team wanted to determine if sleep disruption helps cause Alzheimer’s or if Alzheimer’s brings on disturbed sleep.
“It was a chicken and egg problem,” she said.
Her team studied 283 individuals who were 70 years or older between 2009 and 2016.
None of the subjects had dementia. Of them, 204 were men and 79 were women.
The volunteers filled out sleep surveys over a number of years. The researchers determined 63 individuals had daytime sleep issues.
All the people in the study were given two brain scans about two years apart.
Vemuri said those with sleep problems showed increased accumulations of amyloid proteins in their brains.
Vemuri said normal sleep can clear amyloid proteins from the brain. If sleep is disrupted, it can become easier for these proteins to gather.
In their study, researchers also noted that disrupted sleep can also increase synaptic activity in the brain. That can also lead to protein accumulation.
“Sleep disruption is associated as a factor for dementia,” said Vemuri. “There is definitely a need to address the issue.”
The study’s significance
One of the signs of disrupted sleep is daytime drowsiness.
Hendrix pointed out, however, that protein accumulation would most likely be occurring in someone who has excessive daytime sleepiness. It’s not simply an older person who takes naps in the afternoons.
“These are people who literally can’t stay awake during the day,” he noted.
Hendrix and Vemuri both said the study’s findings could be useful in developing early intervention strategies for people with a family history of Alzheimer’s.
They said problems such as sleep apnea, fragmented sleep, and insomnia could be tackled in a more serious manner if there is concern these issues could be increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s.
“It could lead to good prevention strategies,” said Vemuri.
Hendrix added that good sleep patterns are still important even if a person doesn’t have a high risk of Alzheimer’s.
Poor sleep can lead to cardiovascular and other health problems.
“Sleep is an important part of our overall health,” Hendrix said.