- Sleep disruptions can be an early precursor to Alzheimer’s
- Pulling an all-nighter can decrease efficiency and productivity
- Americans are making small but vital gains in how much sleep they get each night
With growing public awareness of the importance of sleep to our health, there seems to be news stories almost every day touting some new advance in sleep science. But all this information can lead to overload, and it can be hard to keep tabs on it all. Darius Zoroufy, MD, medical director of Swedish Sleep Medicine in Issaquah, Washington, breaks down some of the latest headlines on sleep news stories and tells you what you need to know.
The research from Washington University in St. Louis that says problems with a person’s sleep/wake cycle may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s doesn’t surprise Dr. Zoroufy.
“There’s been a lot of research on Alzheimer’s and related dementia types over the last several years, and one of the things we’re finding is that years before there’s ever discernible loss of memory or cognitive function, the brain tissue has already been accumulating the sticky buildup of protein plaques (“amyloids”) that are connected to Alzheimer’s,” he says. “The analogy is that before a person has a heart attack he already has years of cholesterol building up in the arteries. With Alzheimer’s disease, it can be 10 or more years before the first signs of change start happening with memory, but there are subtle things other than memory that are already deteriorating as the early amyloids start to develop, and one of those things is sleep. That’s because the amyloids can affect the parts of the brain controlling good-quality, well-organized sleep.”
So changes to sleep habits are worth keeping an eye on. “As a person ages and retains more amyloid deposits and there isn’t another reason for observed body clock disruptions, this could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Dr. Zoroufy notes that dementia isn’t always a factor. “If someone has had poor sleep since their 30s it would probably not be this,” he says. “If someone has been sleeping really well through their 60s and now in their 70s their sleep suddenly deteriorates, that’s not a normal pattern, and worth looking into. Usually the rule of thumb is that most temporary sleep problems—such as those caused by a viral infection, jet lag or a stressful occurrence—will settle themselves down in two months.”
Dr. Zoroufy says this story touches on broader research about the effect of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance in everyone, not just women.
“One thing that has been found is that cognitive performance and reaction times—the speed at which you process information—and accuracy deteriorate the more you are sleep deprived. Performance worsens with more nights of poor sleep,” Dr. Zoroufy says. “Additionally, the perception of how badly you are performing also deteriorates. If you ask someone who is sleep deprived how well they are doing on a task, they don’t perceive how poorly they are performing. They think they are doing fine. The difference this study seems to touch on is that—and this is a generality, it’s not true in every case—as men’s sleep deteriorates they tend to keep up their speed while making more mistakes, while women tend to slow down more and make fewer mistakes. No one knows for sure if this is a biological or social difference.”
Dr. Zoroufy’s takeaway: opt for a good night’s sleep over burning the midnight oil. “People are very busy and have a lot of responsibilities, so often times they try to stay up late to complete tasks,” he says. “But they will be slower at completing that task if they are starting late at night, and they won’t perceive how slowly they are working. To maintain productivity and efficiency, we recommend a decent night’s sleep over staying up late.
Here’s a piece of good sleep news: Americans are making small but important gains in how much sleep they get each night—between 2003 and 2016, Americans gained roughly 17 minutes of extra sleep each night, which adds up to more than four full days’ worth of sleep each year.
“It’s sort of the same way with everything—if you need to make a fundamental change in health do it incrementally,” Dr. Zoroufy says. “If someone is 50 pounds overweight they don’t have to lose all the weight by next week, but if they lose 10 pounds over the next two months that can have a huge effect, and it’s the same with sleep. I usually recommend people get an extra 30 minutes of sleep per night, which is an hour and 45 minutes more sleep per week.”
To achieve those small, incremental changes, Dr. Zoroufy says people should commit to a set bedtime. “Technologies like television and smartphones make it hard to fall asleep, so the bedtime alarm on the iPhone is your friend—on the clock app you can set a bedtime with a reminder 15 or 30 minutes beforehand. That little nudge reminds you to stop what you’re doing, turn off your electronic devices and get to bed,” he says.
He adds that people who don’t like mornings should stop hitting the snooze button on their alarms. “It takes that awful experience of waking up and multiplies it—it’s like ripping a bandage off and putting it back on and then taking it off again. Those extra eight minutes in bed don’t help at all. For people who really struggle with waking up, there are dawn simulators that can bring them gently out of sleep instead of abruptly waking them.” And if poor sleep is a consistent problem, Dr. Zoroufy urges people to talk with their doctor to rule out issues such as sleep apnea, which can cause difficulty breathing during sleep.
Are you having trouble sleeping? Find a physician or visit a Swedish Sleep Medicine facility near you.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.