Neuroscientists at Rutgers University-Newark believe there is a possibility that a good night’s sleep could protect African Americans who have a gene variant linked to Alzheimer’s Disease. The findings are detailed in a new study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

“This new finding suggests that someone with a high-risk variant might be able to overcome their genetic inheritance by improving their sleep habits,” said Bernadette Fausto, Research Faculty at Rutgers-Newark, who is the lead author on this new study.

The benefits seem to extend to those carriers of the ABCA7 variant, which is the most common genetic risk factor for African Americans. Blacks suffer from Alzheimer’s at twice the rate of white people, and also get less sleep on average. According to the National Health Interview Survey by the Center for Disease Control, there is a “sleep gap” of nearly an hour, with white women getting the most sleep and Black men the least. 

A statement highlighting the findings notes that population density is contributing to that sleep gap for African Americans. For those who live in cities, noise and light pollution impact the body's ability to release melatonin. It adds that African Americans are also more likely to have severe cases of sleep apnea than white people, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.  

“It's primarily a problem where people stop breathing during the night, 120 times in many cases, and that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease,” says University of Miami Professor Giardin Jean-Louis, Ph.D. He adds that obesity tends to exacerbate the issue. Another sleep disorder that he says affects African Americans more is insomnia, though Black and Brown communities are less apt to talk about it. 

“There's a growing awareness that sleep is crucial for brain health and this may be a significant contributor to the high rates of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias among African Americans,” said Mark A. Gluck, senior author on the study and Professor of Neuroscience and Public Health. “Sleep disruption of any sort can accelerate the progression of Alzheimer's,” he added.

The study enrolled 114 African Americans from in and around Newark. Each participant was given a battery of cognition tests and was asked to complete a self-assessment of their sleep quality. Through this, researchers found that people with the genotype who reported getting enough quality sleep were protected from developing one of the earliest cognitive signs of Alzheimer's disease. Conversely, those with the high-risk gene variant who reported poor quality sleep showed impairments in the generalization of previous learning. 

Fausto considers the findings shocking. Researchers hope that down the road, patients with the AMCA7 variant will prescribe sleep over an expensive drug.