Category Archives: Interviews with experts

Guest interviews help readers figure out how to solve care dilemmas.

Can Sleep Help Prevent Dementia?

The passing years have taught me that night time interruptions turn me into a monster and sound sleep boosts my mood. Now it seems that the crankiness caused by sleep deprivation has deep implications for caregivers. Sleeping well may help prevent dementia. And not sleeping?….You guessed it.

#sleep and dementia

Results of a recent study carried out by Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, professor of neurosurgery at University of Rochester Medical Center for Translational Neuromedicine, suggests that sleep time is when our brains clean themselves. Nedergaard says that, “The restorative nature of sleep appears to be the result of the active clearance of the by-products of neural activity that accumulate during wakefulness.”

Details of the study appeared in an article by Mary Elizabeth Dallas, a reporter for Health Day. The writer explains that by using new imaging technologies, researchers were able to examine the brains of living mice to monitor the waste removal process that occurs during sleep. Dallas writes that investigators “discovered the brain has its own unique process, known as the glymphatic system, that is guarded by a complex gateway known as the blood-brain barrier.” By pumping cerebral spinal fluid through brain tissue, this system pushes waste into the blood stream which carries it to the liver. An interesting aspect of this process is that the brain actually uses more energy when it’s asleep. In fact, brain activity in study mice was 10 times greater during slumber.

Study authors explained that pumping cerebral spinal fluid is an energy intensive activity which may only be possible during sleep. It’s the rare time when the brain isn’t actively processing information. Sleeping brains also removed much more amyloid-beta, the plaque-building protein that’s been identified as the probable cause of dementia. Consequently, if care responsibilities are keeping you awake at night, you are not giving your brain a chance to do a critical job.

Professor Nedergaard observed that the study’s findings “have significant implications for treating ‘dirty brain’ disease like Alzheimer’s.” She hopes that further research will be able to help us understand how the brain’s cleaning system works and how we can boost its efficiency. My gut tells me she’s onto something important.  I know that good sleep enhances my health — and I’ve often thought of dementia as the ultimate “dirty rat”.


Building Healthy Caregivers

Sometimes you have to hear a message many times before you really get it. After talking with experts like Dr. Michael Baime and reading the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, I now see why it’s crucial for caregivers and dementia patients to do activities that protect the hippocampus region of their brain.

Caregiver health

Research shows that the hippocampus  plays an important role in consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. We have two hippocampi, one on each side of the brain.  They display the earliest signs of damage when Alzheimer’s disease attacks.

The work of Baime and Kabat-Zinn has shown that a regular meditation practice can actually promote growth of grey matter in this brain region which is so essential to preserving memories. This week my regular news scan led me to another article, by Margery Rosen, stating that physical exercise has also been shown to boost the size and vitality of the hippocampus. Rosen writes in the AARP report that, “Scientists think exercise boosts the flow of blood to certain parts of the brain, spurring the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) …[which] stimulates the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus….At the same time, [BDNF] repairs cell damage and strengthens synapses, or the connections between brain cells.”

The effects of exercise can be significant, even if you are older or were not physically active earlier in life. A study from the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 70- to 80-years-old women who already had symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, had better focus and decision-making skills after doing one to two hours of weight training two days a week for six months. Rosen also quotes Kirk Erickson, neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the exercise study, as saying, “This was the first time that we were able to demonstrate that you can actually increase the size of the hippocampus…People need to know that dementia is not inevitable.”

While his comment on inevitability may be an overstatement, these two research studies give us plenty of reasons to try to fit these two activities into our busy lives. It looks like 15 minutes of morning meditation — and a 30-minute walk before dinner — could drastically improve the lives we lead 20 years from now.