Sleep Apnea and the Brain

Obstructive sleep apnea, which has been linked to cognitive problems, is treatable.

Living Well, NeurologyNow, February/March 2012

Obstructive sleep apnea, which has been linked to cognitive problems, is treatable. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) usually produces the type of loud snoring exaggerated for comic effect by cartoon characters and comedians. Homer Simpson snores operatically. So does Curly of the Three Stooges. But there’s nothing funny about OSA. This common form of “sleep-disordered breathing” results when the tongue and soft palate in the back of the throat relax during sleep and block the windpipe, leaving the sleeper gasping and struggling for air (for more Neurology Now coverage of OSA). Although these episodes don’t always wake up the sleeper, they often rouse a person dozens of times during the night. In either case, the person may fail to get the deep, restful sleep that restores the body and the mind. As a result of these episodes of sleep-disordered breathing, people with OSA often experience head-aches, irritability, forgetfulness, and daytime sleepiness that can be severe. People with OSA are up to five times more likely to be involved in a serious traffic accident. Sleep-disordered breathing, such as the kind caused by OSA, has also been associated with hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, mild cognitive impairment, and dementia.

Less Oxygen To the Brain

A recent study suggests how OSA might contribute to dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, and to its precursor, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), defined by the U.S. National Library of Medicine as “the stage between normal forgetfulness due to aging and the development of dementia.” People with MCI generally recognize they’re having memory problems, but the lapses do not interfere significantly with everyday activities, and not everyone with MCI develops dementia.Kristine Yaffe, M.D., member of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) and professor of psychiatry, neurology, and epidemiology and biostatistics, and Roy and Marie Scola Endowed Chair in Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, led a study that began with 298 older women who were free of cognitive problems. An overnight sleep study showed that 35 percent of them stopped breathing in their sleep 15 or more times per night. During the next five years, 44 percent of these women developed mild cognitive impairment or dementia, compared to only 31 percent of the women with normal nighttime breathing.


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Sleep Medicine with Dr. Gary Polk

Dr. Polk is a member of the Amarillo Diagnostic Clinic, P.A.

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