This Nightly Habit May Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk, Says New Study

Updated: Jul. 29, 2023

New dementia research from UC Berkeley could persuade you to change your sleep habits.

Alzheimer’s disease, the most pervasive form of dementia, threatens approximately one in nine people over the age of 65. With the rate of this devastating condition set to trend upward in the coming years, researchers are racing against time to uncover factors that might bolster cognitive resilience.

New research published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, BMC Medicine, suggests paying attention to deep, non-REM, slow-wave sleep. This often overlooked aspect of your rest could help increase resilience against dementia-related memory loss linked to the brain protein beta-amyloid. (Note: Beta-amyloid comes from a bigger protein found in the fatty membrane surrounding nerve cells.)

This finding could mitigate some of the most severe outcomes of dementia, making it a potentially critical revelation in cognitive science.

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The power of deep sleep

The research team included postdoctoral researcher Zsófia Zavecz, PhD, who performed this research at the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science (and subsequently joined Cambridge University in April 2023). Dr. Zavecz and her team made a groundbreaking discovery: Having ample amounts of deep, slow-wave sleep acts as a protective shield against memory decline, especially among people with high amounts of Alzheimer’s disease pathology.

Dr. Zavecz explains in a recent press release via Science Daily that your sleep patterns—”specifically, deep sleep,” she said—can help moderate the effects of this pathology. That’s right: Your good night’s rest could substantially impact your cognitive health and help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

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The scientific evidence

The UC Berkeley team has previously established a correlation between diminished sleep and a faster rate of beta-amyloid buildup in the brain, a precursor to dementia. Cognitive reserve factors such as years of education, physical activity, and social engagement are typically used to bolster resistance to severe brain pathology. But here’s the catch: These factors can’t be easily modified retrospectively.

In steps sleep, the hero of the story. Matthew Walker, PhD, UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology and senior author of the study, proposed that sleep could be the “modifiable factor” and a missing piece in understanding why memory varies among individuals with the same level of amyloid pathology.

The team tested this theory, monitoring the sleep waves of 62 older adults from the Berkeley Aging Cohort Study using an electroencephalography (EEG) machine. At the same time, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan measured the amount of beta-amyloid deposits in participants’ brains. The results were encouraging: Those with high amounts of beta-amyloid who had better deep sleep performed better on memory tasks than their counterparts with less restful sleep.

Even when controlling for other cognitive reserve factors, sleep still demonstrated a considerable benefit, indicating that it contributes independently to preserving memory function amid brain pathology.

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Sleep your way to better memory

“Think of deep sleep almost like a life raft that keeps memory afloat,” Dr. Walker says, suggesting that deep sleep may play a vital role in combating the memory-impairing effects of beta-amyloid deposits.

So, how can you improve your sleep quality to reap these benefits? The researchers suggest maintaining a regular sleep schedule, staying mentally and physically active during the day, creating a dark, cool sleep environment, and minimizing stimulants like caffeine and screen time before bed. A warm shower before you hit the hay can also help do the trick.

In today’s fast-paced lifestyle, it’s sometimes tempting to overlook the importance of sleep, pushing it down your priority list to squeeze in more waking hours. However, the National Institutes of Health highlights the importance of why you should devote one-third of your time to a good night’s rest in their healthy sleep guide. Chronic sleep deprivation doesn’t just affect your Alzheimer’s risk—the guide also mentions that it increases your chances for serious health issues, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and infections.

The takeaway here? Get some quality shut-eye and check out these strategies for a better night’s sleep. The way you’ll feel will be something to remember.