Certain sleep disorders herald dementia 15 years in advance

In Alzheimer’s dementia, the connections between the nerve cells in the brain are blocked by protein deposits – so-called plaques. As a result, fewer and fewer nerve cells are available to the sufferers over time. As a result, they increasingly lose the ability to think and remember, so that sooner or later an independent life without help is no longer possible.

The influence of poor sleep on dementia

The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is still unclear. Researchers believe it is very likely that there are several triggers – including genetic predisposition, harmful environmental influences or even periodontitis.

What is now well studied, however, are certain symptoms that occur in conjunction with Alzheimer’s disease. For example, researchers have been able to demonstrate a striking correlation between sleep disorders and the onset of dementia. A study by the “Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health” showed that poor sleep quality is associated with a higher probability of Alzheimer’s disease. A study by Stanford University and Washington Medical School came to the same conclusion.

The results do not mean that poor sleep causes Alzheimer’s, nor that every person who suffers from sleep disorders will develop dementia. But the increased risk makes the medical experts sit up and take notice: “If the role of sleep in the development of dementia is clarified, there is hope that methods of intervention can be identified that make it possible to delay or even prevent the disease,” explains scientist Matthew P. Pase.

Specific sleep disorder particularly affected


In 2017, a study from Canada has now examined the exact types of sleep disorders in relation to dementia risk. Their surprising finding: even 15 years before the actual diagnosis, the risk of later Alzheimer’s disease can be determined on the basis of a specific sleep disorder. The special sleep disorder in question manifests itself in the fact that those affected thrash about and kick during so-called REM sleep. Sometimes they even fall out of bed.

REM sleep accounts for a quarter of total sleep and is characterized by rapid eye movements with eyes closed (REM = “rapid eye movement”). In REM sleep disorder, sufferers move according to their dreams. The Canadian scientists were able to prove that people with this sleep disorder have an 80 to 100 percent higher risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease such as Parkinson’s or dementia. The values are naturally relative data and do not mean that with this sleep disturbance to 80 per cent a disease takes place.

Another study published in the journal “Neurology” also confirms an influence of REM sleep on the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease. The investigation of 321 test persons with an
average age of 61 years showed that people with less REM or dream phase sleep had a higher risk of dementia. In addition, the risk for the disease increased if the participants were in the dream phase for less than 20 percent of their sleep or took longer than 90 minutes to reach the REM phase.

The significance of the study results now lies primarily in the fact that the scientists have a clear clue for further research – in the hope that this will enable them to do something about Alzheimer’s dementia at an early stage.

Early detection is important
Alzheimer’s dementia manifests itself through a wide variety of symptoms that more or less limit life. These include increasing forgetfulness, speech difficulties and orientation problems, and later personality changes, delusions, incontinence and agnosia (relatives are no longer recognized).

According to the “Alzheimer Forschung Initiative e.V.” (AFI), early diagnosis can be decisive for the course of the disease: “In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, therapy should be started as early as possible. The drugs that can delay progression work best at the beginning of the disease.”

For this very reason, early detection tools such as sleep disorder research could be an important step toward mitigating severe consequences of Alzheimer’s in the future.

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