Improving Sleep to Battle Cognitive Decline: A New Approach?

Patient Expert

According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer's disease, and this number could rise to 16 million by 2050. Ten percent of adults over 65 have the disease and approximately 200,000 individuals aged 65 or under are living with younger-onset Alzheimer's disease.

Although deaths from heart disease have decreased by 14 percent since 2000, deaths from Alzheimer's disease have increased by 89 percent since then.

It's clear that something needs to be done to address the rising prevalence of Alzheimer's. Tackling poor sleep might be one way to do this.

Is a new medical treatment on the horizon?

Steven D. Targum, M.D., is the Chief Medical Advisor at Neurim Pharmaceuticals where he is assisting with a clinical trial for Alzheimer’s disease. The clinical trial is testing whether an investigational medication that has sleep-promoting effects can slow cognitive deterioration or improve cognitive function.

The medication combines melatonin and serotonin and is currently in phase 2 trials. Melatonin is a hormone that helps the body regulate the sleep-wake cycle (also known as the circadian rhythm) and serotonin is a neurotransmitter that influences our mood.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Targum told HealthCentral he believes the drug may be able to improve sleep, protect brain cells, and possibly even stimulate neural growth. This is a departure from existing sleeping pills that can come with side effects that actually worsen memory function.

Clinical trials are currently underway in 75 locations across the United States and researchers are looking for participants between 60 and 85 years of age who have been diagnosed with mild dementia due to Alzheimer's disease. Those interested can learn more at the research study's website.

The link between poor sleep and cognitive decline

Dr. Targum pointed out that there is a direct link between poor sleep and cognitive decline, with 63 percent of those with cognitive impairment and half of all Alzheimer's disease patients suffering from sleep disturbances.

According to Dr. Targum, one of the roles of slow-wave sleep (also known as deep sleep) is to clear the brain of toxins — one of which is beta-amyloid. He said if this protein accumulates due to poor sleep it can develop into amyloid plaques. These plaques are associated with Alzheimer's disease and can lead to inflammation and cognitive degeneration.

Taking steps to improve sleep may, therefore, improve cognition.

Is medication the answer?

Although medication may be the right option if you suffer from poor sleep due to an underlying medical condition, tackling the root cause of your sleep issues may be a better strategy if you've been diagnosed with primary insomnia.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is recommended as a first-line treatment for insomnia by professional organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the British Association for Psychopharmacology.

Sleep is hugely important for physical and mental health and improving sleep quality can improve cognition. For those vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease, sleep quality is even more important. Dr. Targum recommends those suffering from poor sleep practice good sleep hygiene and focus on good nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits.

Although medication isn't always the answer when it comes to improving sleep over the long term, it's good to see new research and clinical trials since they all help to advance our understanding of sleep and confirm its importance to our overall health.

See More Helpful Articles:

Night Sweats 101: What Causes Them? How to Get Rid of Them?

Alzheimer's and Insomnia: How to Help Your Loved One Get Some Sleep

How to Manage the Sleep Disturbances Associated With Alzheimer's Disease


Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free insomnia sleep training. His online course uses CBT techniques to teach participants how to sleep without relying on sleeping pills. More than 4,000 insomniacs have completed his course and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.