The problem of sleep deprivation in seniors is a serious one and one that can be very debilitating for both mental and physical health.
What scientists are learning is that poor sleep, some conditions which make sleep difficult (such as sleep apnea), and Alzheimer’s all work together, contributing one to the other, in a vicious cycle. For example, lack of sleep increases Alzheimer’s risk, but conditions that cause lack of sleep, like apnea, are directly tied to Alzheimer’s as well. Both apnea and poor sleep have been directly tied to increasing buildup of amyloid plaques and other signs of Alzheimer’s, such as brain damage, inflammation, and accumulation of tau tangles in the brain.
Why is Insomnia more prevalent for seniors than any other age group? Well, as Bette Davis once said, “Getting old is not for sissies.” There are worries about money, the home, how to pay bills with less money coming in, whether one might have to enter a nursing home or assisted care center, and how these institutions take over their finances and homes. There are sleep complications caused by many drug-drug interactions in the elderly as many older individuals take more than one medication.
Another problem, as Dr. Jack Gardner, certified neurologist, explains is that conditions like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, frequent urination, and painful arthritis often affect the elderly and all of them steal precious hours of sleep from seniors.
More concerning, however, is that sleep deprivation has now been linked to a host of medical conditions from dementia, to diabetes, to cancer and Alzheimer’s. Researchers are finding that sleep is not only restorative—but an important “washing” process, where toxins, plaques, and proteins that can cause Alzheimer’s and dementia are cleansed from the neurons and brain.
Let’s look at common causes of sleep problems in the elderly, how they are being tied to Alzheimer’s and what we can do to get more sleep and protect our brains.
How lack of sleep leads to Alzheimer’s
Lack of sleep is increasingly being tied to Alzheimer’s disease. Through several university studies, scientists have been able to chart how a lack of sleep directly causes Alzheimer’s.
This is because sleep is when we dump an array of toxins which then cause amyloid plaque build-up in the brain. In 2013, Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist, recently discovered that during sleep, the brain’s glymphatic system Is ten times more active, acting as a nocturnal cleaning system that removes proteins called amyloid beta—the very proteins that accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.
If you’ve never heard the term “glymphatic system” that’s because it’s new. Nedergaard and his team invented this term to describe a kind of “scrubbing” process that happens during sleep as cerebrospinal fluid literally scours the space between neurons where plaques tend to collect and where synapses should be firing keeping minds quick and active. The washing of this space flushes out waste that can collect around important brain cells called glial cells. (source, source)
Furthermore, insufficient and low-quality sleep also causes inflammation in the brain which leads to the accumulation of tangled “tau proteins” commonly found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
More recent studies are adding more pieces to the puzzle, revealing that it is not so much lack of sleep quantity as lack of sleep quality that leads to the buildup of tau tangles and amyloid plaques.
In a July, 2017 study by Ju et. al., researchers found that frequent interruptions in slow wave sleep directly increase the buildup of tau protein tangles and plaques in the brain. Slow wave sleep is the third stage of sleep before REM sleep and we experience 4 to 6 cycles of slow wave sleep during a good 8 to 9 hours of sleep. It’s also the stage of sleep where repair, healing, muscle building, and fat burning happen—all kinds of processes we need to remain healthy of mind and body.
In this study, researchers examined 101 people (average age 63 years old) of normal cognition and memory but who had a genetic predisposal to Alzheimer’s. In the study, researchers found that people with poor sleep quality had more biological markers for Alzheimer’s disease in their spinal fluid such as tau protein tangles, cell damage, amyloid plaques, and brain inflammation. (study)
As Ju explains, “The worse someone’s sleep quality, the more their amyloid beta and tau increase, and both amyloid beta and tau are involved in Alzheimer’s over the long-term,” Ju told Reuters Health in a telephone interview. “I don’t think people should worry about Alzheimer’s disease after one bad night. I do think chronic sleep disruption increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease…Because brain cells release amyloid beta during activity, we think if the brain cells can’t rest the way they’re supposed to and get that deep sleep, they produce a relative excess of amyloid.
These researchers note that tangled tau proteins show up very early, in middle age even, and could lead to early intervention protocols that prevent individuals from developing Alzheimer’s. (source).
The Sleep Apnea Alzheimer’s Connection
Scientists have now directly linked one common cause of sleep disturbance with Alzheimer’s—sleep apnea/obstructive sleep apnea—which causes soring, frequent waking, gasping and sometimes choking many times during a typical night of sleep. Apnea is just one of many causes of insomnia and lack of quality sleep which may impact the duration of reparative slow wave sleep.
Now research presented in the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in 2017 found a direct correlation between apnea and Alzheimer’s. In a study of 1,639 adults in their 70s, researchers found that apnea was directly tied to the build-up of both plaques and tau tangles in the brain. (study).
Furthermore, they learned that sleep changes caused by Alzheimer’s can also cause sleep disturbances that lead to low quality sleep, further exacerbating plaque and tau buildup, a vicious cycle of chicken and egg that leads only to one end, a never-ending worsening of the plaques and tangles in the brain.
So What Causes Sleep Loss for 50+ Generations
In persons over the age of 50, common causes of insomnia include all or some of the following:
- Drugs interacting with other drugs and causing sleeplessness and difficulty falling asleep
- Frequent urination: it is hard to get to sleep when you have to get up and move around at night, which causes a bump in heart rate and exposure to bright lights, which impact circadian rhythms and wake/sleep cycles
- Too much TV or bright light late at night. As explained above, bright light exposure and blue light from devices can greatly interfere with sleep cycles (one great cause of this is they prevent melatonin production)
- Anxiety and worry: frequently, seniors have serious concerns about their money, ability to remain in their home, health, security, and ability to manage life matters on their own—all this anxiety is cumulative and can eventually cause great problems with sleep, including insomnia
- Sleep apnea—one of the most common conditions in seniors that disrupts sleep. Likelihood of developing sleep apnea increases as we age and greatly impacts our quality of sleep, causing unconscious wakeups all throughout the night that prevent individuals from staying long enough in important sleep cycles like slow wave sleep and REM sleep. (See study).
Symptom of Sleep Apnea: A Common Sleep Stealer for Seniors
As we mentioned above, sleep apnea has been directly connected to Alzheimer’s. So let’s talk about the symptoms of this brain-damaging disorder. Sleep apnea affects some 18% of all seniors, according to the American Thoracic Society, while it only affects some 3.2% of younger men ages 20-45. (study)
Symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Chronic snoring
- Waking up already tired
- Waking up with a sore throat (snoring)
- Falling asleep while driving
- Loss of libido
- Forgetfulness and memory loss
- Mood swings
- Waking up choking/gasping
- Headaches in the morning
Preventing Alzheimer’s with Better Sleep Strategies
Getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult as we age. Here are the best remedies and strategies we know of to help ensure a good night’s sleep—and quality sleep.
Turn off blue light early
Staying off devices and turning off all blue light emitting devices at least 2 hours before bed, that includes any lighting in your home. This will help reset your circadian rhythms and assure good sleep. Darkness and red light (like firelight and sunset) are the only cues your system gets to tell your body to release melatonin and prepare for sleep. Melatonin is the hormone that tells your body to get sleepy, so you can fall asleep more easily if you stimulate production of this “sleepy” hormone.
Transdermal magnesium and eating magnesium-rich foods
Magnesium is an important mineral for sleep and many of us are deficient in it. In fact, anyone with digestive issues, who is over the age of 50, has diabetes, or drinks alcohol can be at risk for magnesium deficiency. Magnesium regulates melatonin release and helps stimulate release of a neurotransmitter called GABA, which helps to quiet brain activity and prepare the body and mind for sleep. Almonds are packed with magnesium as are Swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, lima beans, brown rice, and dark chocolate. Transdermal magnesium is an effective and popular way to get magnesium in its most absorbable form besides food, and prevents having to take yet one more pill or supplement. There are oils, lotions, bath soaks, all kinds of wonderful ways to soak up your magnesium today.
Sleep on your side
Believe it or not, sleeping on your side is one easy way to prevent Alzheimer’s. A recent study finds that side sleeping helps the body to dump plaques and tangled proteins out of the brain via the glymphatic system.
Whatever method you choose, the research is beyond convincing. Making getting quality sleep a high priority every single night is an important and critical part of any protocol to prevent Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative disorders.