A healthy night’s sleep benefits us in a variety of ways. Sleep helps our bodies reset, heal, and prepare for the next day. During a healthy sleep cycle, new neural pathways are created to help our brains with memory, cognitive learning, and other important brain functions. For those of us with a healthy functioning body and brain, a good night’s sleep means better physical and cognitive function. Without enough sleep our decision making, stabilized moods and behavior, problem-solving, and many other brain functions are compromised. As we age, our brain functions are impacted by a variety of factors. Diet and physical activity are two of the most important variables when it comes to our brain’s health; as we age, our lifestyle choices may impede healthy function. Researchers have found that lack of sleep and dementia-related diseases and disorders may be more closely linked than previously thought.

In a recent study published in March of 2020, researchers found that individuals who suffered from sleep disorders experienced changes associated with breathing that resulted in increased amyloid beta and tau deposition in brain regions typically involved in Alzheimer’s. What does that mean exactly? Amyloid-beta is a protein that is necessary for healthy brain function. At healthy levels, this protein plays an essential role in the building and repair of neurons and neural pathways in the brain. This single protein aggregates into soluble oligomers, which then combine to form insoluble fibrils and plaques. When these fibrils and plaques accumulate at an unhealthy rate and there isn’t an appropriate clearance of these proteins, it can lead to neurotoxicity, and in turn, can cause neuronal and synaptic damages and even loss. When reviewing the tau protein, abnormal structure or mutations can also be attributed to neurodegenerative losses.

Lack of Sleep and Dementia – An Increased Risk

Experts agree that one of the largest causes of dementia-related disease is abnormal sleep or lack of sleep. The sleep deprived buildup of the amyloid-beta protein leads to the deterioration of brain function and cognitive development when neurons and pathways are compromised. It’s no wonder that unhealthy sleep patterns are found in a majority of people living with dementia disorders; researchers and medical professionals believe these unhealthy sleep behaviors start years, sometimes decades before dementia symptoms are even seen. Sleep is one of the ways our bodies clear this buildup of fibrils and plaques. This means when there’s an unhealthy or broken sleep cycle, our bodies can’t repair and clear the way for healthy neural function.

While unhealthy sleep patterns earlier in life may contribute to an increased risk for dementia-related disorders later in life, it can also mean that those suffering from dementia will most likely experience unhealthy sleep patterns as they are struggling to live with these disorders. The unfortunate pattern seems to be cyclical in nature. This has led researchers to determine that establishing healthy sleep behavior early on is essential to helping stop dementia disorders in their tracks before they have a chance to take hold. Early diagnosis of disorders like Alzheimer’s, and implementing treatments that heavily rely on normalizing sleep behaviors may be the key to stopping the devastating regression.

Sleep Behavior in Dementia Patients

The build-up of proteins in the brain is at least partially to blame for dementia disorder symptoms. It’s not a surprise patients experience trouble with sleep in their later years. Because the build-up of fibrils and plaques affects cognitive function, the symptoms of dementia disorders compound to cause even more issues with brain function later on. This unfortunately means less sleep and less restful sleep only contribute to these symptoms even more. To add to the patient’s unfortunate circumstances, their ever-changing perception of the world around them can cause sundowning and an altered grasp on time.

While degeneration of healthy neurons and cognitive function cannot be reversed, slowing the effects can help them maintain their current quality of life. By helping those suffering from dementia disorders gain quality and consistent amounts of sleep, caretakers and loved ones can help mitigate additional neural damage. Because the world around them is uncertain and in many cases new and scary, dementia patients are at risk for wandering. Lack of sleep in dementia patients can lead to days filled with greater cognitive impairment and mood swings, behavioral changes, and even difficulties with other brain functions.

Patients may experience tiredness throughout the day with an inability to sleep restfully at night. Staying outdoors to encourage melatonin production can help those living with dementia to stay awake until it’s time for bed. Cutting back on fluid intake in the later hours of the day can help with bathroom breaks during the night hours. Creating a restful sleep environment can assist in staying asleep once dementia patients are able to retire for the evening. While these actions may help in small ways, it is still very common for those living with a dementia disorder to continue to have unhealthy sleep behaviors and struggle with getting quality sleep.

To continue to understand the way sleep impacts brain function, especially as it relates to brain disorders, researchers have much left to learn. For more information on how you can help find a cure for a variety of brain disorders by funding research projects through the United Brain Association, click here. If you’d like to get updates on our ongoing and upcoming research projects, sign up for emails with us here. Together we can help find a cure!

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