No one knows exactly why we need to sleep, but we certainly do. Although the brain can’t thrive on sleep alone, good sleep is an essential ingredient necessary to keep your brain functioning at its best. New research is shedding light on how a good night’s sleep may protect your brain from neurodegenerative diseases.
In 2022, Canadian scientists evaluated the medical literature regarding sleep apnea and its link to the risk of dementia. They reviewed eleven studies comprising more than a million people. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious condition characterized by repeated stoppages of breathing during sleep. Sufferers of sleep apnea often snore loudly, and most mornings they wake up still feeling exhausted. In 2019, a multinational group of scientists estimated the worldwide prevalence of sleep apnea. They reported that sleep apnea affects almost 1 billion people globally. Furthermore, in some countries, more than half the population may suffer from sleep apnea. The Canadian researchers discovered that those affected by sleep apnea are prone to dementia, particularly an increased risk of certain types of dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Parkinson’s disease (PD).
In a 2021 study, Danish scientists reported that getting up to urinate in the middle of the night is associated with a higher risk of developing dementia. The researchers evaluated the medical records of more than a million Danish men whose health and habits were studied over several years. They determined that a subgroup of men who woke up several times a night to urinate were twenty percent more likely to develop dementia than their counterparts who slept through the night. The scientists believed that the chronic interruption of sleep impaired the brain’s ability to cleanse itself of toxins.
In 2020, French scientists reported that sleep apnea may cause brain damage. The researchers studied the sleep patterns and brain characteristics of more than one hundred people and reported an association between breathing disorders during sleep and the accumulation of toxic proteins (amyloid) in the brain, leading to brain inflammation. The locations of amyloid deposition were similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s disease.
Another group of Icelandic and Australian scientists reported that sleep apnea may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease. In 2020, the researchers reported that a toxic protein (amyloid beta), associated with dementia, caused plaques and tangles in the brains of people who suffered from sleep apnea in the years preceding AD. Volunteers with sleep apnea donated their brains to science after death. Microscopic evaluation of the brain tissue revealed atrophy (wasting away) of the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and emotion, which was associated with the plaques and tangles.
If that’s not enough to convince you to curl up under the covers (and not just for forty winks but the full eight hours), I don’t know what would. So, drink a nice glass of warm milk, fluff up that pillow, and start counting sheep. Your brain health may be on the line.