Too much tossing and turning could be a sign of trouble to come. Restless nights may signal the onset of Alzheimer’s disease years before memory loss or other cognitive problems occur, shows intriguing new research published in Neurology.
For two weeks, a study team tracked the sleeping habits of 145 healthy adults. The researchers also tested the participant’s spinal fluid for markers of preclinical Alzheimer’s. Those who scored lowest in terms of overall sleep quality were five times more likely to test positive for preclinical Alzheimer’s. Signs of poor sleep quality include taking more time to fall asleep, sleeping less during the night, and taking naps more frequently during the day, according to the study.
What might sleep have to do with Alzheimer’s? Small amyloid plaques are present in the brains of sufferers, and may appear up to 20 years before cognitive decline sets in, says study co-author Yo-El Ju, MD, a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis. These plaques appear to interfere with the neuronal functions necessary for healthy sleep. That means trouble sleeping—even in your 40s or 50s—could be cause for concern, the study suggests.
And there’s more bad news: Not only do these plaques disrupt sleep, but sleeping poorly also appears to increase their presence, meaning it may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s, Dr. Ju explains. Fortunately, she says understanding the relationship between sleep and Alzheimer’s could help doctors develop treatments to slow or stop the development of the illness.
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, but getting a good night’s rest could slow the buildup of brain plaques that leads to cognitive decline, the research suggests. If you’re struggling with sleep woes, Ju recommends avoiding caffeine and alcohol, establishing a consistent sleep schedule, and following other well-established sleep-improvement tips. If those tactics don’t work after several weeks, then she suggests talking to your doctor about the problem. Of course, it may very well not signal Alzheimer’s—but poor sleep is also linked to other health conditions, like heart disease and diabetes.