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Up all night? Researchers say less sleep could increase risk of Alzheimer’s

What are the latest advances in sleep research? On Thursday, "St. Louis on the Air" tackles the subject.
Jon Huss | Flickr

St. Louis researchers have found that people who suffer from a lack of sleep could increase their risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study by Washington Universityput eight people through a variety of tests over 36 hours, including one in which participants remained awake during the night.  The results were also published in the Annals of Neurology by Dr. Randall Bateman and Dr. Brendan Lucey, professors of neurology at Wash U.

Scientists studied the amount of fluid that surrounded the brain and spinal cords of those involved in the study, who ranged 30 to 60 years of age. They found that participants who slept very little produced more of the protein amyloid beta, which is linked to Alzheimer’s.

Some of the participants received a full night’s rest without sleeping aids; some stayed awake throughout the night; and others slept with the help of a sleeping aid.

Participants who experienced a lack of sleep saw their amyloid beta levels increase by as much as 30 percent.

“When sleep deprived or when sleep is disrupted, the levels of amyloid beta increase,” said Dr. Yo-El Ju, an assistant professor of neurology at Wash U. “If that clumps up and doesn’t dissolve anymore, those are called amyloid plaques, and that is the first step of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Participants who took sleeping medication had a similar level of amyloid proteins to those who slept uninterrupted without the help of a sleeping aid, Ju said.

The study found that levels of amyloid beta in those who did not sleep, were comparable to those of people who are genetically predisposed to contract Alzheimer's at a relatively young age.

Ju said getting get a full night’s rest improves a person’s health. She said doctors should talk to patients about their sleep habits.

“It’s very important to get a good night’s sleep,” Ju said. “There is a lot of accumulating recent studies in the past 10 years that have shown that poor sleep chronically is a real risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Earlier research by the Wash U team found that people with preclinical Alzheimer's spent a higher percentage of their time in bed unable to fall asleep.

Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and affects more than 5 million Americans.

Researchers say that further studies are needed to determine if a better sleeping routine can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s for people with sleeping disorders.

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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