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Poor sleep linked to Alzheimer's brain plaques

Plaque buildups in the brain indicative of Alzheimer's disease have been found in scans of older adults who get a poor night's sleep, according to a new study.

Researchers at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore took brain imaging scans of 70 senior adults who had slept five hours or less or had reported poor quality sleep. They found these individuals had greater accumulations of the telltale beta-amyloid plaques seen in patients with Alzheimer's.

Their findings were published Oct. 21 in JAMA Neurology.

"These results could have significant public health implications as Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, and approximately half of older adults have insomnia symptoms," study author Dr. Adam Spira, an assistant professor in the department of mental health at Hopkins, said in a statement.

Under a microscope, brain tissue from Alzheimer's patients show abnormal clusters of protein fragments between nerve cells called "plaques" and strands of dead and dying nerve strands called tangles, the Alzheimer's Association notes.

In people who have the disease, pieces of a sticky protein found in the fatty membrane surrounding nerve cells -- called beta-amyloid -- break off and clump together to form the plaques. Some clumps may block signaling between nerve cells or activate immune system responses that further damage cells. These brain changes usually spread as the disease progresses, and plaques may form in regions of the brain involved in processes like learning, memory, thinking and planning early on in the disease.

For the new study, researchers examined self-reported sleep survey results and looked at brain scans of adults who had an average age of 76 to find a correlation between poor sleep and brain plaque proteins.

The research does not prove not getting enough sleep will cause Alzheimer's, and the authors called for more studies to track adults for longer periods of time.

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The good news is poor sleep can be treated in older people, which Spira said may help reduce risk for brain changes.

Treatments include cutting back on caffeine, napping, light therapy, behavioral therapies and medication, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

"To the degree that poor sleep promotes the development of Alzheimer's disease, treatments for poor sleep or efforts to maintain healthy sleep patterns may help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer disease," he said.

Not getting sufficient sleep is already linked to numerous health woes including risk increases for diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression.

Recent studies have shown poor sleep may cause changes to hundreds of genes that may interfere with body processes or damage organs and other tissues.

Last week, a study found sleep may help flush out cellular wasteand other "gunk" that builds up in the brain when people are awake.

One sleep medicine researcher said the findings were consistent with previous studies.

"All of the studies so far are kind of showing the same thing, that there is an association between disrupted sleep and Alzheimer's pathology, meaning brain changes," Dr. Yo-El Ju, a neurologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said to Reuters.

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