Sleep apnea and snoring have been linked to earlier cognitive decline and dementia, according to research. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder categorized by the stoppage of breathing throughout the night which wakens a person up thus contributing to poor sleep. A primary symptom of sleep apnea is snoring which is a sound emitted from the upper airways of the throat and is a result of loose, relaxed muscles which vibrate.
Sleep apnea has been tied to many health conditions like hypertension, diabetes and obesity, but other findings suggest that sleep apnea and snoring are also linked with earlier cognitive decline and dementia.
Sleep apnea, snoring linked with early cognitive decline
The findings were published in the journal Neurology where researchers found a link between sleep apnea and snoring to cognitive decline and dementia. The findings also suggest that proper treatment of sleep apnea and snoring could help prevent or delay cognitive decline.
Study author Ricardo Osorio said, “Abnormal breathing patterns during sleep such as heavy snoring and sleep apnea are common in the elderly, affecting about 52 percent of men and 26 percent of women.”
The researchers looked at medical histories of 2,470 people aged 55 to 90. Participants were categorized either as free of memory of thinking problems, in early stages of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), or with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers also looked at those with untreated sleep breathing problems versus those without sleep problems and untreated sleep problems versus those with sleep breathing problems.
Patients with untreated sleep breathing problems had a diagnosis of MCI 10 years earlier than patients without sleep breathing problems. Those with sleep breathing problems developed MCI at an average age of 77 compared to the age of 90 for those without sleep breathing problems. Patient’s with sleep breathing problems also developed Alzheimer’s disease five years earlier as well at an average age of 83 compared to the age of 88 of those without sleep breathing problems.
Patients who treated their sleep breathing problems developed MCI 10 years later compared to those who left their problems untreated.
Osorio added, “The age of onset of MCI for people whose breathing problems were treated was almost identical to that of people who did not have any breathing problems at all. Given that so many older adults have sleep breathing problems, these results are exciting—we need to examine whether using CPAP could possibly help prevent or delay memory and thinking problems.”
Although further research is required the researchers are hopeful of their findings and look forward to further exploring how treatment for sleep apnea could help delay MCI and other memory problems.
Previous study links sleep apnea to increased risk of dementia
Previous research has also shown a link between sleep apnea and an increased risk of dementia. Although the findings don’t reveal cause and effect between sleep apnea and dementia it does offer insight between the two conditions and offers evidence on how poor sleep may play a role on mental decline.
Study leader Dr. Rebecca Gelber said the new findings “help to explain how sleep disturbances may actually contribute to the development of cognitive impairment and dementia.” The researchers found that men with less circulating oxygen in the blood had more microinfarcts which are tiny abnormalities in the brain tissue which precedes dementia. Gelber explained, “Microinfarcts and atrophy are known to be much more common, and more severe, in people with dementia, than in people without memory problems.”
The findings are based on autopsies from 167 elderly Japanese-American men part of a long-term health study. The men’s blood oxygen levels and brain activity were monitored while they slept as part of the study.
One-quarter of the men with the lowest oxygen levels during sleep were almost four times more likely to show microinfarcts in the brain versus those with the highest oxygen levels.
Furthermore the researchers found those who spent less time in slow-wave sleep had greater brain atrophy. Gelber explained, “Slow-wave sleep has been considered the deep, restorative stage of sleep and is important in processing new memories.”
Additional research is required in order to better understand the results and treatment for sleep apnea should also be further explored to determine it’s role in the prevention or delay of cognitive problems.
Treating sleep apnea to delay cognitive decline
Sleep apnea is commonly treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine which is a facial mask worn by the individual which keeps continuous air pressure flowing as to prevent the stoppage of breathing. Your doctor may recommend you own a CPAP device after the conduct typical diagnostic measures to determine if you have sleep apnea or not. This is typically done overnight at a sleep clinic where you are monitored.
Other methods in order to treat sleep apnea and delay cognitive decline include dental appliances like a mouth guard or even surgery to reposition the jaw and tongue to prevent snoring.
Natural methods, too, can be effective in treating sleep apnea such as losing weight, avoiding alcohol and not smoking. These factors have been shown to play a role in sleep apnea and disrupt sleep overall.
Other tips to treat sleep apnea include:
- Sleeping on your side
- Sew a tennis ball into your sleep shirt so when you are tempted to roll to your back you are nudged to stay on your side
- Keep your head propped up or elevated
- Keep nasal passages open using a saline spray, nasal dilator, or breathing strips
- Tighten the muscles which keep the mouth closed by chewing gum or holding a pencil between your teeth up to 10 minutes prior to sleep
By working with your doctor and following these tips you can have greater success in treating sleep apnea and avoiding the complications which are associated with it.