How Sleep ‘Cleanses’ Your Brain and Helps Lower Your Dementia Risk

What experts have to say

Dr. Alon Y. Avidan, MPH, is the director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center and a professor in the department of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Avidan told Healthline that while we’re sleeping, our glymphatic system goes into full action to clear proteins, toxins, and waste products.

“Poor sleep makes the glymphatic system less efficient,” Avidan said. “These proteins are toxic to the cell, to the neuron, and their accumulation could lead to inflammation and degeneration of those neurons in the brain that over time may contribute to Alzheimer’s dementia.”

“Now, we cannot say that if you’re sleeping 4 hours a night that in 20 years you’re going to develop Alzheimer’s dementia,” he added. “No one has shown that yet.”

“What we’re saying is that there is a trend,” he added.

The Alzheimer’s Association agrees it’s still too early to determine a causal relationship.

“Evidence is building that sleep disturbances — like sleep apnea or disruptions in sleeping patterns — may increase risk of later life Alzheimer’s and dementia, or may even be an early sign of these diseases,” said Heather Snyder, PhD, the Alzheimer’s Association vice president of medical and scientific operations.

“But more research is needed to understand the relationship between sleep and dementia,” Snyder told Healthline. “For example, do brain changes caused by the disease cause sleep disruptions, or do changes in sleep patterns increase risk of dementia? Or both?”

Snyder says the Alzheimer’s Association has funded researchers doing work in this area, including Dr. Andrew Varga, a neuroscientist and physician at the Mount Sinai Integrative Sleep Center in New York. He’s researching how sleep disruption may lead to a more rapid buildup of tau, an abnormal brain protein related to Alzheimer’s disease.

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