New research from the Washington University School of Medicine reveals that fragmented sleeping patterns in healthy adults could be an early warning sign of Alzheimer's Disease.

A study published in the journal Jama Neurology states that misalignment of the natural body clock or circadian system of healthy adults may contribute to dysfunctional brain processes that pinpoint to dementia, particularly Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's has long been associated with body clock problems, but for the first time, a study looked at the relationship of sleep-wake cycles as an indicator of developing this neurological condition at an older age.

Fragmented Sleep May Indicate Alzheimer's

"We found that fragmentation of the circadian rhythm -- meaning when someone had frequent short periods of rest or sleep during the day, and frequent brief periods of activity at night -- was associated with preclinical Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Yo-El S. Ju of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The researchers analyzed the circadian rhythms of all 189 volunteers from the Knight Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. The volunteers were mostly women, about 67 years old on average, and highly educated.

The participants wore wrist-mounted trackers to monitor their 24-hour rest-activity patterns at home for a week or two. They also completed daily sleep journals.

The monitoring tracked out who experience fragmented periods of activity during the day and sleep disruption at night.

A positron emission tomography scan was also conducted to detect the presence of amyloid plaques and Alzheimer's-related proteins in the brain.

Out of all the research participants, 139 showed no sign of amyloid proteins associated with preclinical Alzheimer's. Most have normal sleep/wake cycles, and body clock disruptions are associated with old age, sleep apnea, and other causes.

The remaining 50 participants that showed abnormality either in the PET scan results or cerebrospinal fluid have all experienced significant disruptions in their body clocks.

Participants who experience short periods of activity and rest during the day and night were likely to develop amyloid plaques in their brains. Amyloid levels increase when sleep is disrupted or when a person doesn't get enough sleep.

Alzheimer's Quick Facts

Alzheimer's disease in the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Every 66 seconds, a person develops the disease, and by the year 2060, about 15 million people in the United States will have Alzheimer's dementia or mild cognitive impairment.

There has been an 89 percent increase in Alzheimer's-related deaths since the year 2000, and the disease kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. One in every three senior adults dies with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia.

A person may not have noticeable symptoms of the disease but may show traces of early-onset Alzheimer's. In the United States, an estimate of 47 million people are showing early signs of the condition that gradually impairs a person's memory and thinking skills.

The study could help doctors identify people at risk of Alzheimer's earlier than possible.

Early Signs of Alzheimer's

Changes in behavior, moods and cognitive skills could mean that a person is showing early signs of the neurogenerative disease.

"Warning signs are changes in mood or personality, withdrawal from work or social activities, decreased or poor judgment, misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps, new problems with words both in speaking and writing, trouble understanding visual or spatial relationships, confusion with time or place, difficulty completing familiar tasks, challenge in planning or solving problems and memory loss," according to The Alzheimer's Association.

Aerobics exercise and an active lifestyle may help delay the development of the disease.

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