Healthy Living

The Worrying Link Between Sleep Apnea and Dementia

Sleep apnea might be a direct cause of dementia, according to this study. How can patients prevent it?

The Worrying Link Between Sleep Apnea and Dementia

A research study published in the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respirator and Critical Care Medicine has found obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) might just be an at-risk factor for older adults to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Sleep apnea occurs when the airway becomes blocked as muscles in the throat relax. The most common form of this condition is obstructive sleep apnea, which happens when the patient stops breathing several times throughout the night. The muscles in their throat collapse and close their airway enough to prevent airflow from getting into the body's bloodstream and consequently the lungs.

You wake up multiple times during the night with apneas, or breathing stoppages, and blood oxygen levels are highly reduced. The unfortunate issue with sleep apnea, you don’t even know when you stop breathing. You snore, gasp for air, and sometimes thrash around. When you stop breathing during sleep apnea episodes, breathing stoppage is so brief, so you rarely know you are not getting enough oxygen to the bloodstream and lungs. You do not stop breathing only one time, however, but up to 30 to 100 times an hour.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Severity Affects Amyloid Burden in Cognitively Normal Elderly: A Longitudinal Study, reports that the plaque-building peptides in Alzheimer’s disease grow over time in elderly adults with sleep apnea and in proportion to the severity of their sleep apnea. Those with more apneas per hour have a rapid and higher accumulation of brain amyloid or starch-like protein-carbohydrate complexes. These complexes begin to form or deposit abnormally in the brain (or other places in the body) during chronic disease states like Alzheimer’s.

Further studies have shown that obstructive sleep apnea could be linked to the brain’s temporal lobes shrinking. The temporal lobe is where your memories are stored, and shrinkage causes memory loss.

Sleep apnea is common in the older population and can also cause health problems including heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. Other factors that cause dementia incudes depression, high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking.

It is not all doom and gloom; however, you can get a good night's sleep without interruptions, if you get a diagnosis and treatment for sleep apnea.

At this time, there is no cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s; however, intervention with treating sleep problems might help in slowing down and treating cognitive conditions. Sleep apnea can be slowed down if you get the proper treatment.

Researchers found an important link between dementia and sleep apnea

Researchers in Australia worked with 83 people between the ages of 51 and 88 who had discussed concerns about their memories with their doctors. None of these participants had received a formal obstructive sleep apnea diagnosis. Each patient had their memory skills, and depression symptoms analyzed, and MRI scans measured different areas of their brains. The scans in the study then focused on their temporal lobes.

Again, this age group was chosen because they were older and at risk for dementia. Researchers determined that doctors should be screening for obstructive sleep apnea in older people as part of their annual physicals. Sleep doctors should also question older patients about their learning skills. Tests should be carried out on memory and thinking skills as routine screening.

After the memory tests and MRI scans, the participants entered a sleep clinic and were monitored for signs of sleep apnea. Technicians and researchers used polysomnography to check out brain activity, oxygen levels, heart rates, breathing and movements during sleep. The study discovered that participants who had lower levels of oxygen in their bloodstreams during sleep also had a thickness in the regions of their brains that affected memory.

Thickness was also detected in other parts of the brain, and researchers believe this thickening is the body’s defense to lower levels of oxygen.

Changes in areas of the brain that affected memory also caused patients to struggle when it came to learning new information. This connection between learning and changes in the brain is the first time a link between low oxygen in the bloodstream, and learning has been shown in research.

A conclusion was determined that sleep doctors should be a part of questioning patients for learning abilities as well as memory loss problems.

Another research study included 208 participates from ages 55 to 90 with normal cognition skills measured by standardized tests and clinical evaluations. The participants in this study had never received treatment or a diagnosis for sleep apnea.

This study was set up to determine if biomarkers for amyloid beta or the plaque building peptides associated with Alzheimer’s disease increased over time in adults with obstructive sleep apnea.

Do the two affect each other? It is a question of what comes first – sleep apnea or Alzheimer’s disease.

Ricardo S. Osorio, MD, senior study author and assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, said, "Several studies have suggested that sleep disturbances might contribute to amyloid deposits and accelerate cognitive decline in those at risk for AD."

He went on, "However, so far it has been challenging to verify causality for these associations because OSA and AD share risk factors and commonly coexist."

Researchers used lumber punctures to obtain cerebrospinal fluids levels and employed positron emission tomography to measure certain deposits in the brain. The studies were determined to find if obstructive sleep apnea affected Alzheimer’s.

The result of the study showed high incidents of OSA in cognitively healthy older adults and the link between OSA and amyloid problems in the early stages of Alzheimer’s pathology. These participants were definitely at risk for Alzheimer’s and/or dementia. Researchers suggested to the participants to use CPAP devices, dental appliances, and other treatments for sleep apnea. These treatments could delay cognitive impairment and dementia.

The study emphasized that the results from this study plus the growing literature supporting these hypotheses suggest that sleep apnea, Alzheimer’s Disease, and cognitive decline are related. Loss of memory and cognitive awareness may show that age is the known factor of sleep apnea. Sleepiness causes cardiovascular problems and metabolic dysfunction in the brain. Scientists need to develop screening tools to diagnose sleep apnea in the elderly. Screening tools would be a vital step in slowing down Alzheimer’s symptoms.

A CPAP device could lower your risk for dementia

Sleep apnea may be common, but it is a potentially dangerous sleep disorder where breathing frequently stops and starts. Snoring loudly and feeling tired after a full night’s sleep may be an indication that you have sleep apnea. Contact your doctor and check it out especially if you are between the ages of 55 and 90.

Wearing a CPAP mask and using a CPAP device may not seem glamorous, or it may be overly obnoxious, but it can save your cognitive skills and maybe even your life. There are many sleep apnea treatments, and these include the CPAP device, dental devices, surgery, and losing weight if you are obese, and easy lifestyle changes. You might try changing sleep positions, avoiding sleep pills and alcohol, avoid smoking and stop sleeping on your back.