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A new study links poor sleep to Alzheimer's disease.

We all know that getting a good night's sleep is important to our health. And now, researchers have uncovered yet another reason to make sure you’re catching your Zs.

Fragmented sleep — brief awakenings throughout the night — may increase older adults' risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study conducted by researchers at Rush and the University of Toronto that was published in the July 2013 issue of the journal SLEEP.

Sleep fragmentation doesn’t mean waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. You likely just drank that cup of hot chocolate too close to bedtime.

Those who suffer from fragmented sleep are awakened for brief moments (lasting seconds to minutes) throughout the night on a consistent basis, reducing total sleeping time and causing daytime sleepiness. Several illnesses, including alcoholism and sleep apnea, make people more prone to fragmented sleep.

Eye-Opening Results

Past research has shown a possibility that sleep disruption may contribute to memory loss, but this is the first time a link has been shown using a long-term study of a large group of older people. The study included 737 participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project at Rush, an ongoing large-scale study of aging and Alzheimer’s disease risk factors.

Participants were monitored for up to 10 straight days in their own homes via small, portable devices that captured movement every 15 seconds. Researchers at the University of Toronto worked with Rush investigators to develop this measure of sleep disruption.

Participants also underwent annual clinical evaluations during a six-year follow-up period, which included 21 different tests to measure memory decline and Alzheimer's disease development.

Potential Prevention

Finding factors that play a role in the development of Alzheimer's disease is becoming even more important as the global population ages.

The total number of people with Alzheimer’s disease in 2050 is projected to be 13.8 million, an increase from 4.7 million in 2010. Approximately 7 million of those with the disease in 2050 would be 85 years old or older. Roughly 50 percent of older adults report sleeping problems, many of which can be helped by medical treatments.

"Our research results raise the possibility that interventions to improve sleep may be a useful strategy for reducing cognitive impairment and dementia in old age," says David Bennett, MD, director of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center and one of the study's authors.

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November 2013

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