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Anyone who’s tried to go a few nights without getting enough sleep knows how badly sleep deprivation can throw off one’s body. The many links between sleep and overall health are well known, but recent groundbreaking research in sleep medicine has revealed that there is still much we don’t know about the role of sleep in regulating the human body and mind. While medical professionals have for decades cautioned against not getting enough sleep, a new study out of Harvard University is serving as a new dire warning. According to the research, poor sleep quality is associated with a higher risk of plaque build up in the brain, one of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Brad Dickerson, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, says that their research is showing that overall quality of sleep may play a role in how the brain develops beta-amyloid protein plaque, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s:

Observational studies have found that adults over age 65 with amyloid plaques in their brain have reduced slow-wave sleep, which is thought to play an important role in memory function, even though these people do not yet show signs of Alzheimer’s, like memory loss and cognitive decline. It may be that quality sleep could play a role in who may get Alzheimer’s.

The study is looking specifically at slow-wave sleep, the deepest part of sleep in which the brain stores and consolidates memories. Beta amyloid plaques are disposed of during this phase of sleep, so individuals with sleep disorders which disrupt deep sleep are at a higher risk of developing these plaques over time, possibly leading to Alzheimer’s disease.

What does this mean for you and your sleep habits? For one, avoid any behaviors or lifestyle choices which might lower overall sleep quality. As with most health issues, diet and exercise are important for sleep quality, as are simple actions like avoiding screen time at night, choosing the right mattress, and avoiding excess caffeine or other stimulants. We spend about a third of our lives asleep – don’t you want to make the most of all of your time?

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