What keeps you awake at night? Nothing, I hope.

But if you’re like most people, then caffeine, stress, worry, or simply reluctance to turn off the smartphone or the TV may be cutting into the time you need to sleep — assuming you want to avoid dementia at some point in your future.

It may be years before you pay – but you will pay.

A third of adults now sleep fewer than six hours a night when you need at least seven for optimal physical and mental health. I’m not talking about people who have an excuse for not sleeping, like chronic pain.

I’m talking about relatively young, healthy people who fail to get the sleep they need.

While long-time readers will be aware that a good night’s sleep is crucial, a recent study using cutting-edge brain scanning technology has come up with new findings.

These suggest declining sleep quality in middle age has certain effects on the brain that increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Keep reading to see the actual, physical damage that poor sleep inflicts. . .

You Can’t Get Away with Too Little Sleep

Matthew Walker is a well known sleep researcher, professor of neuroscience, and author of the book, Why We Sleep.

His lab at the University of California, Berkeley, has demonstrated that without enough sleep the brain’s ability to receive new input and form memories is strongly reduced.

For Professor Walker’s latest study, 95 healthy older adults who are part of the ongoing Berkeley Aging Cohort Study, including some aged 100, underwent brains scans using the latest positron emission tomography (PET) scanner. This new, expensive, and rare version detects not only beta amyloid but also tau tangles — both proteins associated with Alzheimer’s.

The research team discovered that subjects in their 40s and 50s who reported a decline in sleep quality had greater beta amyloid in their brains later in life. Those whose sleep quality didn’t deteriorate until their 50s and 60s had more tau tangles.

The researchers concluded that a decline in sleep quality in midlife puts them at greater risk of dementia.

Prof. Walker commented, “Unfortunately there is no decade of life that we were able to measure during which you can get away with less sleep. There is no Goldilocks decade during which you can say, ‘This is when I get my chance to short sleep.'”

The Berkeley group also made another discovery based on members of the group who not only had a PET scan but also spent a night in the university’s sleep lab.

Importance of Synchronized Brain Waves

Subjects with higher amounts of tau “tangles” were more likely to lack synchronization of slow brain waves with the bursts of fast waves seen in non-rapid eye movement or NREM sleep. The more tau, the greater the mistiming of brain waves. This is important because paired electrical activity is needed for a good night’s sleep.

Given the consequence of this form of sleep disruption, Matthew Walker said, “There is something special about that synchrony.

“We believe that the synchronization of these NREM brain waves provides a file-transfer mechanism that shifts memories from a short-term vulnerable reservoir to a more permanent long-term storage site within the brain, protecting these memories and making them safe.

“But when you lose that synchrony, that file-transfer mechanism becomes corrupt. Those memory packets don’t get transferred as well, so you wake up the next morning with forgetting rather than remembering.”

Suffer from Insomnia? Seek Help!

The Berkeley team believe doctors should ask their older patients about any changes in their sleep pattern. Helping them sleep better could potentially delay symptoms of dementia.

A common cause of sleep disruption is sleep apnea — an interruption of breathing during sleep which deprives the brain of oxygen. It’s easily treatable.

Doctors could also counsel people on ways to improve their sleep habits, or hand them a prescription for cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which has proven to be very effective.

Each one of us needs to be aware that sleep disruption contributes to dementia and should be taken seriously.

“I think the message is very clear,” the sleep expert concludes, “if you are starting to struggle with sleep, then you should go and see your doctor and find ways, such as CBT-I, that can help you improve your sleep. The goal here is to decrease your chances of Alzheimer’s disease.”


  1. https://www.jneurosci.org/content/early/2019/06/17/JNEUROSCI.0503-19.2019
  2. https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/06/26/disrupted-sleep-in-ones-50s-60s-raises-risk-of-alzheimers-disease/

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