People With Alzheimer's Sleep Poorly—Should Your Frequent Naps Alarm You?

People who develop Alzheimer’s may show subtle signs decades in advance, and those signs may be as innocuous as napping. However, researchers behind a new study, published Monday in JAMA Neurology, say there’s no reason to lose sleep about a few restless nights

Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis compared how fragmented a person’s sleep patterns were to the ratio of two proteins, tau and amyloid, in his or her brain; both tau and amyloid have been linked with Alzheimer’s disease.

“The study really shows that you can detect these changes in circadian rhythms very, very early in Alzheimer’s disease—before people have any symptoms. We don’t know if it puts you at higher risk or not,” Dr. Erik S. Musiek, a neurologist at Washington University School of Medicine, told Newsweek.

Nearly 200 people participated in the study. About a quarter of the participants had some physical signs that indicated they might show signs of dementia some time in the future—and this group, the researchers found, had more fragmented sleep patterns. (These participants had normal cognitive function—so, they did not have Alzheimer's—but people with the condition do often have problems sleeping, the Alzheimer's Association notes on its website.)

subway sleeper A man sleeps on the subway on January 10 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Especially when combined with a related study published Tuesday based on mouse experiments, Musiek and his colleagues’ results may indicate that having a messed-up sleeping pattern may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. The team altered the genes that control circadian rhythms and found that mice forced to have more fragmented sleeping patterns developed the characteristic amyloid brain plaques of Alzheimer’s more quickly than their genetically unaltered peers.

“Obviously, it’s in mice, so we don’t know if it applies in humans yet,” he said.

If you are starting to wonder if you should track your naps to determine your risk for Alzheimer’s, stop. Changes in sleep patterns happen normally as people age, Musiek said. “Naps are probably good for you. It’s just that we think having this disrupted rhythm could play some role in the disease. But we don’t know how that works yet.” 

Getting amyloid levels specifically checked because you or a loved one is napping more frequently is probably not worth it, Musiek added. “The state of the field is that we don’t really know what to do with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease yet in the clinic,” he said. “It’s very important for research and for clinical trials, but we don’t even do this kind of testing in people that don’t have any memory loss yet.” (A doctor’s visit to check for other issues might not be out of line if sleep patterns dramatically change. Other changes, like dramatic changes in a person’s mood or personality, might be more concerning, Alzheimer’s-specific signs, the Alzheimer’s Association notes.)

What Musiek and his collaborators' research might show is that studying the circadian clock could be a potential new way to treat Alzheimer’s—something that appears to be sorely needed. Drug after drug, each targeting the amyloid protein itself, has failed. The most recent negative clinical trial had results published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine. Some have argued it’s time to trash the so-called "amyloid hypothesis" of Alzheimer’s entirely.

Musiek said he wouldn’t go that far. But while he and other researchers figure out what exactly is going on, getting a good night’s sleep couldn’t hurt.