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How Does Poor Quality Sleep Lead to Alzheimer’s?

I am obsessed with sleep, or in my case quality of sleep. As a result, I read everything I can about how to get a good night’s sleep, both for myself and my clients, who often after the age of 50 suffer from the same malady, not necessarily lack of sleep, but quality.

According to a sleep and brain health survey done in 2016 by AARP, they found that only 41 percent of people 40 and over say their sleep is excellent or very good. So, with so many people suffering and wanting nothing more than a good night’s sleep, what can we do?

Sleeping pills are often the first line of action for many. According to the same study, nearly a third of people age 40+ take prescription sleep medications and another third take over-the-counter meds. Many people take both. But like anything in life, if it’s too easy, beware. In fact, many of the over-the-counter options, if taken in high dosage combined with other medications and/or taking them too long can have serious repercussions. And with over-the-counter and prescription sleeping pills, new studies show long-term use of these sleep aids can increase a person’s risk of dementia.

These over-the-counter options can affect short term memory in the short run, and long-term use, 60 days or more, can significantly increase your risk for developing dementia, according to professor emeritus, Sonia Ancoli-Israel, at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine and a study conducted in 2013 of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Researchers are finding that it is no longer the amount of sleep, the 7-9 hours that is often cited, but rather the quality of the sleep. But why? It appears your brain flushes out toxins during sleep and one of these toxins is beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. If you are not sleeping well, even though you are asleep, your brain and body are not clearing out these proteins.

So even those the prescription medications provide you with quality sleep, the side effects of increasing your risks for Alzheimer’s might negate the benefit as delivered in the British Medical Journal in 2014. Another study warns health-care providers to avoid prescribing prescription sleep aids for people 65 years or older.

How can you improve the quality of your sleep without relying on pills? Many of us over 50 who wake up one or more times during the night to go to the bathroom or wake knowing we are not sleeping deeply. What can we do? The Global Council on Brain Health, an independent group of scientists, health professional, scholars and policy experts make the following recommendations:

1. Only go to bed when you feel drowsy. Don’t stay in bed if you feel awake.

2. Exercise daily if you can because physical activity promotes good sleep

3. Avoid caffeine after lunch and alcohol several hours before bedtime.

4. Limit your eating and drinking, even water, three hours before going to bed.

5. Talk with your doctor about sleep issues, and instead of pills get a referral to a sleep therapist.

One method that has proven to be effective is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. With CBT you keep a sleep diary and then work with a sleep therapist. In a 2015 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, people who underwent CBT for insomnia fell asleep about 20 minutes faster and were awake nearly 30 fewer minutes at night than those who didn’t undergo therapy. And that’s comparable or even better than test results for people taking Ambien or Lunesta, according to Julie Corliss at Harvard Health. With handling your sleepless nights this way, you may remember in a few more years that you have been getting a good night’s sleep.

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