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Conquer Snoring, Help Your Brain: Sleep Apnea and Cognitive Decline
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Jun 18th 2013
We're always on the lookout for ways to improve our brain health and prevent dementia, aren't we? Supplements, exercise, crossword puzzles, and blueberries have been incorporated into many people's lifestyles with the hopes of staving off memory loss and related problems.
Yet most of us don't think about the quality of our sleep as linked to the functioning of our brains. What could one have to do with the other?
A lot, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, which focused on close to 300 women with an average age of 82, found that a condition called sleep apnea may contribute to cognitive decline and possibly even dementia.
It's not the first study to reveal such results. Never heard of sleep apnea? It's a disorder that affects breathing during sleep by causing the person to either breathe very shallowly or to experience frequent abnormal pauses in breathing that can last 10 to 20 seconds or longer. It's more common than you might think - according to the American Sleep Association, millions of Americans experience sleep apnea even though up to 80 percent of people with the condition are undiagnosed.
Scientists think that sleep apnea causes cerebral hypoxia, which means that not enough oxygen is getting to the brain. And when the brain doesn't get enough oxygen, its cells start to die. Eventually, the brain can't function optimally anymore and cognitive impairment results. In more severe cases, a person can develop dementia.
If you snore, this doesn't mean that you automatically have sleep apnea. But if you regularly feel tired even though you're getting an adequate number of hours of sleep - or especially if you notice changes in your memory functioning - you may want to ask your doctor for a sleep apnea test.
The good news is that sleep apnea can be treated through the use of a continuous positive airway pressure device, often referred to as a CPAP machine. You'll enjoy consistently open airways during sleep, which means you'll sleep better and wake up more refreshed. And while it may not reverse any cognitive impairment that's already occurred, it can prevent further damage.
In addition to dementia, sleep apnea has been linked to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and mood disorders. So don't wait to get evaluated if you think you might have sleep apnea. It's not just snoring. It could mean the difference between illness and wellness in your life.
Veciana-Suarez, A. (June 12, 2013). Snoring, cognitive slip linked. Chicago Tribune, Kindle Version.