Sleep stories spanned the generations this week, from teenagers to seniors.

In “Wake up when? Minnesotans should back bills for later school starts,” an editorial I wrote for the Star Tribune, I cited the biological reasons that teenagers need more sleep and argued that we should support legislation (SF 2938 and HF 3256) that would require secondary schools to start after 8:30 a.m.

Our teenagers’ health and well-being, now and in the future, depends on their getting optimal sleep. “Our future capacity for discipline and resilience, our compulsions and our tempers all can be predicted by the changes taking place in our sleeping brains as teenagers. Composed of more than 100 billion evolving nerve cells, the mind remodels itself nightly. While adolescents sleep, brain connections that number in the trillions are working to master skills ranging from calculus to free throws, while emotional circuits ready themselves for unforeseeable stresses ahead.”

Sleep is different in teenagers than it is during any other time of life. Teenagers across the board, and across cultures, are wired to stay up later. It’s what we in sleep science call “a delayed circadian rhythm.” So to get optimal sleep, teenagers naturally tend to sleep longer.

Early starts to school prevents teenagers from getting the sleep they need. Research by University of Minnesota researcher Kayla Wahlstrom shows that delaying high school start times “increases sleep intake, improves academic achievement and decreases behavioral problems.” Delayed start times also decreased illicit substance abuse, truancy and motor vehicle accidents.

While research is clear about delayed start times and the benefits to students, connection between sleep and a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is just beginning to emerge.

According to a new study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, “losing just one night of sleep led to an immediate increase in beta-amyloid, a protein in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”

The buildup of amyloid plaques is considered one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. These plaques are created by beta-amyloid proteins that clump together. Beta-amyloid is a metabolic waste product that exists in the fluid between brain cells.  In mice, acute deprivation increases beta-amyloid levels. This recent study is one of the first to show that sleep might play a role in removing beta-amyloid in the human brain. 

It will be interesting to see the evolution of research related to sleep and Alzheimer’s disease; whether there is a proven connection remains to be seen. It’s already clear, however, poor sleep increases the risk factors for heart disease and obesity, and even slight sleep deprivation can affect memory, judgment and mood. So there are plenty of good reasons to get your sleep, no matter how old or young you are.