Can deep sleep protect you against Alzheimer's disease?


Getting a good night’s sleep has always been an important part of staying healthy. Now research confirms that deep sleep may also help protect against Alzheimer’s disease.

More than 40 million people worldwide are afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is expected to rise. While Alzheimer’s disease is currently untreatable, deep sleep may offer a prevention strategy.

Understanding deep sleep

As you sleep, your body cycles through different stages of rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Deep sleep is the NREM stage that helps you feel refreshed when you wake. Your body temperature drops, and your brain follows a slow, steady beat as it produces rhythmic electrical waves. If you are woken during deep sleep (which is hard to do), you’ll likely feel groggy.

During deep sleep, your brain processes information to support memory and learning. Your body also uses the time to restore itself and perform important tasks including:

  • Cell regeneration
  • Energy restoration
  • Increasing blood supply to muscles
  • Promoting growth and repair of tissues and bones
  • Strengthening the immune system

Deep sleep and Alzheimer’s disease

When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, deep sleep functions like a janitor sweeping away garbage that builds up. In this case, the garbage is two different proteins: beta-amyloid (plaque that builds up in the brain) and tau (toxic tangles that form in brain cells ).

Both beta-amyloid and tau are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. As they accumulate in your brain, they destroy neurons and disrupt vital neural processes – eventually affecting your ability to remember, think and function independently. The less plaque and fewer tangles you have, the less risk you have of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers have studied the effects of deep sleep on both beta-amyloids and tau. They found that participants who had more fragmented sleep and less deep sleep were more likely to show an increase in those proteins related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Are you getting enough deep, restorative sleep?

While there’s no exact measure of how much deep sleep you need, you shouldn’t be waking up exhausted. That’s often a sign that you’re not getting the restorative sleep you need.

If you’re concerned that you aren’t sleeping soundly, talk to your primary care provider. There are tests that measure aspects of deep sleep, such as your breathing rate, body movements and brain waves.

Keep in mind that poor sleep doesn’t mean you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease. But getting sound, deep sleep may help keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay for people who are more likely to develop it.

Tips for better sleep

Whether you are worried about Alzheimer’s disease or not, getting good sleep is vital to a healthy lifestyle. And if deep, restorative sleep can slow this disease, that’s just another reason to make it a priority.

According to the American Sleep Association, the best way to increase deep sleep is to allow yourself adequate total sleep time. Depriving yourself of total sleep shortens all your sleep stages, including deep sleep.

To improve your sleep habits and fall asleep faster, try:

  • Addressing medical issues, such as sleep apnea, that regularly disrupt your sleep
  • Avoiding stimulants before bedtime, including alcohol and caffeine
  • Creating a calm sanctuary, so that you’ll associate your bedroom with sleeping
  • Exercising for 20 to 30 minutes earlier in the day
  • Having a bedtime ritual that helps you go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day

If you have concerns about the amount or quality of sleep you get, talk to your primary care provider.