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Could a Good Night's Sleep Guard Against Alzheimer's?

Study found that older people who got more sleep had less of the disease's hallmark plaques in their brains

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Oct. 21 (HealthDay News) -- Older people who get less sleep or poor sleep may have more of the plaque that is suggestive of Alzheimer's disease in their brains, a new study indicates.

"There is a link between sleep and the amount of [beta] amyloid in the brain," said lead researcher Adam Spira, an assistant professor in the department of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The unanswered question is whether poor sleep is a result of plaque build-up or if poor sleep leads to more plaque and eventually Alzheimer's disease. Also, although the study showed an association between the two, it did not prove any cause-and-effect links.

"We can't say that sleep disturbance preceded the amyloid deposits," Spira said. "One possibility is that changes in the brain are leading to disturbed sleep."

It is known that people with Alzheimer's disease have disturbed sleep, Spira said. "But that we found this in people without Alzheimer's disease leads us to think that there might be a connection between sleep disturbance and developing amyloid plaque and Alzheimer's disease, but we can't tell that yet," he said.

Still, Spira suggested it might be possible that improving sleep could help prevent Alzheimer's disease. "We live in a sleep-deprived society," he said. "It may be that changing sleep habits has significant implications for mental health and specifically the prevention of Alzheimer's disease, but that remains to be seen."

The report was published online Oct. 21 in the journal JAMA Neurology.

Spira said a study published Oct. 17 in the journal Science showed that during sleep there are changes in the brains of mice that help flush out toxins such as beta amyloid.

The lead researcher of the Science study, Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, co-director of the University of Rochester Medical Center for Translational Neuromedicine, said this latest study "fits perfectly with our recent analysis."

Another expert agreed that sleeping well might help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

"Since researchers know that more amyloid protein is produced by neurons in active circuits, the results could mean that quieting them down and getting a good night's sleep might help to prevent Alzheimer's," said Greg Cole, a neuroscientist at the Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare System.

Or it might just mean that Alzheimer's disease causes sleep disturbances, he added.

"So far, there is no evidence that sleeping pills reduce Alzheimer's disease risk," said Cole, who also is associate director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine. "Like problems with sleep, people treating the sleep loss with sleeping pills still have increased Alzheimer's disease risk. You wouldn't want to lose too much sleep worrying about sleep loss as a cause or consequence of Alzheimer's disease until we learn more."

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