Tag Archives: research on dementia

Forty Winks to Fight Dementia

A gift doesn’t excite me much, unless it’s something truly heartfelt or desperately needed. This week I got an incredible gift of the second type: two nights of deep, restful sleep. I never thought sleep would mean so much to me.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Don’t horse around! Get some sleep!

I have written about sleep research before, but sleep is much more meaningful when you actually get some. This week I was having a surgical procedure, so I forced myself to bed early to help my body prepare — and then recover. My sister was back on caregiver duty so I wasn’t doing extra labor for my mom. It’s impossible to put worry out of my mind for two whole days, but I tried to minimize it. Two nights of deep sleep really took the edge off my anxiety.

A New York Times article by Maria Konnikova quotes sleep researcher Maiken Nedergaard as saying, “Sleep is such a dangerous thing to do, when you’re out in the wild. It has to have a basic evolutional function. Otherwise it would have been eliminated.” Konnikova suggests that in the era when humans were living out in the natural world, sleeping would have put us at risk of “death-by-leopard-in-the-night”, something caregivers might understand. We know that when loved ones get agitated or hallucinate at night, they can create chaos that seems as dangerous as any untamed animal. But we put ourselves in danger, too, when we fail to rest our brains.

A range of studies have turned up data showing there is greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults with insomnia. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has also published research linking lack of sleep to spikes in the hunger hormone ghrelin which may lead to overeating and weight gain. It’s no wonder that caregivers often end up fighting so many personal health problems — dementia can make sleep a rare commodity.

If you’re sleeping badly on a regular basis, here are some ideas that may help you get better rest. Try at least one of them, as a gift to yourself.

  • Leave all iPhones, laptops or electronic devices outside your bedroom. Nothing ruins my sleep plans like a late night email … which leads me to web surfing….that never ends when it should.
  • Set and enforce a real schedule for going to bed and getting up in the morning. Try to stick to it for at least three days and see if you rest better.
  • Resist TV for thirty minutes before you close your eyes. Televisions give off light that lowers levels of melatonin. If you need a distraction before bed, try music instead.
  • If anxiety is keeping you awake, use paper and a pen to banish it. Write your fears and worries in a small notebook for no more than 15 minutes. Then close the book (literally) and put your problems away. In most cases, there is nothing you can do to resolve thorny issues at 11 pm, so give yourself permission to stop fretting and start sleeping. You can always go back to the worry wheel tomorrow.

Sleep is essential because it appears to be the period when our brains clean themselves of accumulated waste. This garbage includes amyloid, a protein linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. In the NYT article, Dr. Nedergaard offers a metaphor for the role sleep plays in our lives. She tells us to consider a fish tank, “If you have a tank and no filter, the fish will eventually die.” When we sleep deeply, our cerebral cleaning system has a chance to filter the trash out of our brain so we can resume healthy lives in the morning.

It is so rare for me to sleep long and deeply twice in one week. But today I really feel the difference. The wound from my surgery is not throbbing the way it did after the procedure. My thinking is very clear and my mood is good, despite the fact that it’s a grey, rainy day. I know that the problems that tortured me last week still need solutions. But a clear mind can solve problems way better than a tired one. If you want to give yourself (and your family) a real gift, do something tonight that increases your odds of getting forty winks.

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”.