We have long known that sleep apnea is linked to a host of major ailments, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, but soon we may be able to link it to one more: Alzheimer’s disease. We’ve already linked sleep apnea to a more general category of early onset dementia, but now research has found what could be a direct causal link between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s disease.
The Brain’s Garbage System
It was only recently that we discovered an essential function of sleep: letting your brain eliminate waste. This is done via the glymphatic system, a newly discovered method for eliminating waste. It was discovered that during sleep, whether natural or induced through anesthesia, the interstitial pace in the brain — the space between cells — expands. This allows cerebrospinal fluid to flow at a higher rate through the brain, and as it leaves the brain it carries with it toxic metabolic products.
This is a vital discovery. Until we knew about the glymphatic system, it was thought that the brain could only break down these metabolic products within cells — it was thought to have no way to excrete the compounds.
What researchers haven’t done yet is to directly link this waste removal system with Alzheimer’s disease risk. But they’re close. One of the toxins they discovered that the brain was eliminating was beta-amyloid proteins. A buildup of beta-amyloid proteins have been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Another limitation is that the imaging of the glymphatic system has largely been carried out on mice. Researchers are hoping to begin scanning the brains of people sleeping to determine the significance of the glymphatic system on human brain cleaning.
How Much Sleep Are You Really Getting?
Many of us think that we’re getting a good amount of sleep at night, but we’re really not. Snoring and sleep apnea can keep us from getting the rest our body and our brain needs to be refreshed for the day. If you are finding that it’s hard to get up in the morning, or if you’re tired, groggy, unfocused, or unmotivated during the day, you may not really be sleeping as much as you think.