Sleep Position May Influence Alzheimer's Risk

by Christine Kennard Health Professional

Our preferred sleeping position may have a bearing on our risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers from Stony Brook University, suggest our most common side-sleeping (lateral) position is the most effective at removing waste from the brain. Their findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, appear to show that amyloid beta is cleared approximately 25 percent more effectively than when sleep occurs on the back or front.

The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins and other waste materials. The tonsils, thymus and spleen are examples of lymphatic organs but there are also hundreds of lymph nodes in the human body. When we get an infection, the lymph nodes produce more infection-fighting white blood cells, which can cause swelling. These swellings can often be felt in the neck, underarms and groin.

So much for the body, but how does the brain get rid of its waste materials. It’s only quite recently that neuroscientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center discovered a brain drainage system. The so-called glymphatic system acts like a series of pipes that piggyback on the brain’s blood vessels. Dr. Maiken Nedergaard and her team came up with the name after discovering the drainage system is managed by brain cells known as glial cells. The glymphatic system is most active during sleep.

The Stony Brook team was curious to learn whether sleep position affected how well the brain drainage system works. They anesthetized rodents and positioned them either on their backs, their fronts or their sides, and then observed the effects on the glymphatic system via an MRI scan.

Dr. Nedergaard observes that the lateral sleep position is the most common amongst humans and most animals. Sleep, she says, serves a clear biological function and that is to clean up the mess we accumulate while we are awake. On the Stony Brook Newsroom page she goes on to say, ‘many types of dementia are linked to sleep disturbances, including difficulties falling asleep. It is increasingly acknowledged that these sleep disturbances may accelerate memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease.’

Research is ongoing to discover how best to maintain and control the glymphatic system so that it lasts a lifetime at its optimum level.

For more helpful articles:

How does Alzheimer's disease affect sleep

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How does Alzheimer's differ from other types of dementia

How are you coping with caregiver stress?

"Could Body Posture During Sleep Affect How Your Brain Clears Waste? - Stony Brook University Newsroom." Could Body Posture During Sleep Affect How Your Brain Clears Waste? - Stony Brook University Newsroom. Web. 12 Aug. 2015.

Christine Kennard
Meet Our Writer
Christine Kennard

Christine Kennard wrote about Alzheimer's for HealthCentral. She has many years of experience in private and public sector nursing care homes for people with dementia. She has worked in a variety of hospital, public and private health settings and specialized in community nursing. Christine is qualified in group analytic psychotherapy, is registered in general and mental health nursing and has a Masters degree.