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Losing Sleep Over Alzheimer’s

We watch the weather segment on the news to get a heads up on what tomorrow is going to bring…especially this season in Chicago.  We have smoke detectors in our homes, because we are told that they will give us enough time to take action in the case of a home fire.  So when there is new information on early warning signs of Alzheimer’s, we should pay close attention.

We all have heard the cautionary phrase about when to worry and when not…”don’t lose sleep over it,” my mother used to caution about an upcoming test, a project deadline or whatever tomorrow was to bring.  Well, scientists have found evidence that losing sleep, or what they call circadian rhythm disturbances, may be early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, that sleep disturbance may be part of the actual process of Alzheimer’s cognitive decline. This is particularly good news, because it is something that is much more easily assessed, and it requires no imaging or other high tech diagnostics.

The study was but one of many growing out of a now 13 year study following over one thousand older individuals and their cognitive functioning In the Rush Memory and Aging Project right here in Chicago.  Each year, the study collected data over a ten day period for all of these subjects, and what they found about the run-up to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s showed a direct link to sleep.  They tracked the sleep patterns, and those who later developed Alzheimer’s had early sleep pattern disturbances and the progression of this sleep disturbance was much more rapid than the individuals who did not develop Alzheimer’s disease.  Alzheimer’s patients, once diagnosed, showed a decrease in normal sleep patterns that was double that of other patients.

All of this is important as we develop better early indicators of a person’s likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.  Being able to target those who would benefit from any preventive measures earlier is huge, and to do it with something as non-invasive as a series of questions or observations of sleep patterns is even bigger. The cholera epidemics of the mid-19th century were ended by a simple discovery.  It was the drinking water.  The discoverers did not know the bacterium that caused the dreaded urban plague, but they knew the common denominator was the specific pumps where you got your daily household water.  The prevention of cholera preceded its ultimate cure, and it saved a lot of lives.

In the past I have talked about what kinds of cognitive deficits are early warning signs for Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, but this one is different.  Sleep pattern disturbances are a warning sign that precedes the cognitive decline, and sooner is much better than later when you are trying to prevent or cure any condition.

Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago.  She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.


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