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“The sleep you’re having right now is almost like a crystal ball telling you when and how fast Alzheimer’s pathology will develop in your brain.”

BERKELEY, Calif. — We all know the mental health benefits of a good night’s rest. When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, a new study finds restful sleep may also be the best medicine for preventing the debilitating condition. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley say deep sleep not only lowers toxic buildups in the brain, but can be used to estimate when people will develop Alzheimer’s later in life.

“We have found that the sleep you’re having right now is almost like a crystal ball telling you when and how fast Alzheimer’s pathology will develop in your brain,” researcher Matthew Walker says in a university release.

“The silver lining here is that there’s something we can do about it,” the UC Berkeley neuroscientist adds. “The brain washes itself during deep sleep, and so there may be the chance to turn back the clock by getting more sleep earlier in life.”

Poor sleep increases toxic plaques in the brain

The study in the journal Current Biology examines the sleep quality of 32 healthy adults in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. The multi-year experiment reveals participants who experience more interrupted sleep and less non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) slow-wave sleep are likely to have higher amounts of beta-amyloid plaque in their brain.

Beta-amyloid buildups are one of the key signs patients are suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This toxin can destroy brain functions and the channels which control memory. The study says more than 40 million people worldwide are affected by this most common case of dementia.

Each participant underwent a polysomnography, which tests brain waves, heart rate, blood-oxygen levels, and other responses during an eight-hour sleep. Researchers kept track of the participants’ beta-amyloid growth rate, periodically comparing the results to their sleep profiles. Those patterns give scientists the ability to map out when poor sleep may lead to the onset of cognitive decline.

“We know there’s a connection between people’s sleep quality and what’s going on in the brain, in terms of Alzheimer’s disease. But what hasn’t been tested before is whether your sleep right now predicts what’s going to happen to you years later,” study co-author Joseph Winer explains. “Measuring sleep effectively helps us travel into the future and estimate where your amyloid buildup will be.”

Improving sleep to fight dementia

Using the conclusion that sleep quality is a reliable biomarker and predictor of disease, researchers are now looking at methods high-risk patients can improve their sleep.

“If deep, restorative sleep can slow down this disease, we should be making it a major priority,” Winer adds. “And if physicians know about this connection, they can ask their older patients about their sleep quality and suggest sleep as a prevention strategy.”

“Our hope is that if we intervene, then in three or four years the buildup is no longer where we thought it would be because we improved their sleep,” Winer concludes.

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About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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