There is a long list of bad things that can happen when you cheat yourself of sleep. University of California, Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker, who has been trotting the globe since October to promote his new book, Why We Sleep, names cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, weight gain, depression and even suicide as potential results of insufficient sleep.
But it’s sleep’s relationship with the disease that Americans fear most — Alzheimer’s — that just might make you want to lie down and take a long, long nap.
Because it’s while you sleep, and particularly during the non-REM, dreamless stages of sleep, that your brain actually clears out the icky debris of wakefulness, those dreaded amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s.
“Wakefulness is low-level brain damage,” Walker writes in his book. “While sleep is neurological sanitation.”
Hope for Our Aging Brains?
For those of us with a parent or spouse suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or who fear we might get the disease one day, Walker’s message offers a tantalizing grain of hope. Maybe if we put our cell phones away an hour or two earlier and turn out the lights, we can scrub our brains clean and keep dementia at bay.
And there’s another bit of hopeful news that hasn’t surfaced in many of Walker’s interviews with the general press. He’s planning what he calls a “moon shot” research initiative to see if it’s possible, in a sleep lab, to “electrically stimulate the brain to see if we can boost deep sleep.” That is, to synthesize or strengthen the healing, deep, slow brain non-REM waves that repair the brain.
“The idea here is that we [scientists] are trying to act a little bit like a supporting choir to a flagging lead vocalist,” Walker says. “We’re trying to sing in time with those deep sleep waves and we’re trying to amplify them.”
Timeline for Studying Sleep and Alzheimer’s
But for those of us past 50, Walker’s research timeline is distressingly slow. The first phase of his research — which he says will take between 18 months and two years, maybe even four years — will involve healthy young adults. If that research is successful and safe, Walker says he’ll apply for funding and begin to examine electrical brain stimulation in older adults. Finally, he says, “we will move it to more clinical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.”
The ultimate dream is to create a deep-sleep stimulation therapy that could begin as early as the late 30s, when sleep begins to fragment and deteriorate — to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, in much the same way that statins can help prevent heart attacks. But that, says Walker, is “many, many years” away.
Worsening Sleep with Age
Unfortunately, the sleep deterioration that begins in our late 30s catastrophically worsens in the decades that follow.
“By the time you reach 70 years old,” Walker writes, “you will have lost 80 to 90 percent of your youthful deep sleep.” The oft-stated theory that older people simply need less sleep is wrong, he adds.
But he has some tips for those who wake up disturbingly early, at 4 or 5 a.m.
First, Walker says, if you go out in the morning for exercise, wear sunglasses — morning light reinforces an earlier circadian sleep cycle.
But do go out in the afternoon, without sunglasses, to get light.
And take some prescription melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep) in the evening as well.
Debunking the Sleep-as-Weakness Myth
Fighting for sleep is no easy matter in a world that regards sleep as a weakness. Walker, whose Twitter handle is @sleepdiplomat, frequently cites Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as two people who bragged about how little sleep they needed and who subsequently developed Alzheimer’s disease.
“A study of two people is not really a scientific study,” he admits. “But knowing now what we know about the very strong causal relationship between insufficient sleep and Alzheimer’s disease, I suspect it was not coincidental.”
President Trump has said he sleeps only four to five hours a night, according to news reports.
“I do give a warning to any world leaders right now who aren’t getting sufficient sleep or who are touting their insufficient sleep as something to be proud of,” Walker says.
“Sleep has an image problem. We actually stigmatize people who get sufficient sleep as being lazy, as being slothful,” he adds. “And that has to change. Mother Nature spent 3.6 million years putting this necessity of eight hours of sleep in place. And when you fight that type of evolutionarily mandated biological edict — when you fight biology — biology normally wins.”
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