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Poor Sleep Quality, Sleep Apnea May Raise Dementia Risk

Man sleeping

Does your spouse complain that you snore loudly or gasp in your sleep? Better pay attention — and not just for the purposes of marital harmony.

A new study finds that people who have breathing problems while sleeping and those who don’t get enough deep sleep are at higher risk for dementia, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology.

Scientists are increasingly finding that good sleep is crucial to brain health. Previous studies have suggested sleep quality and  duration are connected to memory problems and dementia, but researchers haven’t understood exactly why. This study is the first to show how sleep disturbances cause changes in the brain that lead to memory problems, said lead author Rebecca Gelber, of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System in Honolulu.

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For the study, 167 Japanese American men — average age, 84 — underwent a series of sleep tests at home. Researchers followed them until all of them died an average of six years later. The researchers then performed autopsies on their brains to look for signs of damage.

The group of men with the lowest blood oxygen levels at night were four times more likely to have brain damage caused by microinfarcts — mini-strokes that often proceed dementia. In addition, the men who spent the least amount of time in deep, restorative slumber were more likely to show loss of brain cells and brain atrophy.

“This is important because it lends insight into how these brain lesions, which are so common and detrimental to brain function, may develop,” Gelber said.

The study authors said the lower levels of oxygen in the blood could be caused by sleep apnea and conditions such as emphysema. We’ve known for years that  sleep apnea — a disorder where breathing periodically stops during sleep — raises your risk of heart attack, weight gain,  acid reflux and a number of other health problems. Even so, an estimated 80 percent of men and 90 percent of women with the disorder aren’t diagnosed.

But some experts caution reading too much into this one study.

“The researchers found no association between sleep disturbance and levels of plaques and tangles in the brain, which are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia,” said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs for the Alzheimer’s Association. “In addition, the researchers measured episodes of sleep apnea, looking for an association with dementia-related brain changes, and did not find a significant relationship.” Also, all of the subjects were older Japanese Americans, added Fargo, and the results need to be confirmed in a larger, more diverse group.

But since prior studies have shown that treating sleep apnea may improve cognition, and because the condition is solidly linked to a host of other health problems, it’s especially important that older people talk to their doctors if they have the following signs or symptoms:

Signs of Sleep Apnea

  • Loud and chronic (ongoing) snoring
  • Pauses during snoring, followed by choking or gasping
  • Morning headaches
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling irritable or depressed, or having mood swings or personality changes
  • Waking up frequently to urinate
  • Dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up


Source: National Institutes of Health

Photo: PearlJackson/iStock

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