If You Have Sleep Apnea, Your Memory May Decline Earlier in Life

Study links sleep breathing problems, cognitive loss

woman yawning

Sleep apnea — a sleep disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep — may be doing more than affecting the quality of your sleep and making you tired.

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A recent study finds a link between abnormal breathing patterns during sleep – like heavy snoring and apnea – and cognitive decline at an earlier age than normal.

Researchers from New York University studied data from nearly 2,500 people between the ages of 55 and 90 who had Alzheimer’s disease. They found those with breathing problems were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment an average of 10 years earlier than people without sleep breathing problems.

More than 18 million Americans have sleep apnea, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The word apnea refers to a breathing pause that lasts at least 10 seconds. About half of people who snore loudly have obstructive sleep apnea, in which the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, despite efforts to breathe.

Sleep apnea and memory loss

“The investigators found that people who had sleep-disordered breathing had an earlier onset of mild cognitive impairment compared to people who did not have sleep-disordered breathing,” sleep specialist Harneet Walia, MD, says.

Mild cognitive impairment is when your memory is affected to the point that it is noticeable to others, but not enough to deal with daily functioning. People with mild cognitive impairment exhibit some forgetfulness or amnesia of recent events. They often need to write notes to remind themselves to do things that they would otherwise forget.

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The researchers also found that people who treated their sleep breathing problems with a continuous positive airway pressure machine, or CPAP, were diagnosed with memory and thinking problems about 10 years later than people whose problems were not treated.

CPAP is the treatment of choice for sleep apnea, Dr. Walia says. With this treatment, patients wear a face or nasal mask while they sleep. The mask is connected to a pump and provides a flow of air into the nasal passages to keep the airway open.

The study also linked sleep breathing problems to an earlier onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers say there may be a need to examine whether using CPAP could help prevent or delay memory and thinking issues.

Apnea awareness

Snoring tends to worsen as people age, Dr. Walia says. So it’s important for adults to have health advocates as they get older.

“People who are taking care of older individuals should be cognizant of sleep apnea,” she says. “They should screen these individuals with sleep apnea questions.”

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Ask yourself the following questions to determine whether you or your family member should be screened for sleep apnea:

  • Has your spouse mentioned that you snore at night?
  • Are you having difficulty sleeping?
  • Are you tired during the day?

If you answer “yes” to these questions, talk with your physician about whether a screening for sleep apnea is appropriate.

The study appears in the April 15 edition of the journal Neurology.

More information

Sleep disorders treatment guide

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