Brain Health

Snoring: Can Sleep Apnea Cause Memory Loss?

Snoring: Can Sleep Apnea Cause Memory Loss? about undefined
If you or your partner snore, you already know how common and disruptive this condition can be. Your lost hours of sleep… your dry throat… and your endless fatigue are all enough to drive you mad. But, as we first reported three years ago, these problems could be the least of your worries. That's because another important study shows that snoring can put you on the fast track to dementia. Here’s everything you need to know to protect yourself or someone you love...

Why do you snore?

Loud snoring is sometimes, but not always, caused by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This potentially dangerous condition occurs when the throat muscles relax and block the airflow into the lungs during sleep. This process can cause you to repeatedly stop breathing, which cuts off the blood flow to your brain and damages your neurons. And that’s why researchers wanted to see if snoring causes memory loss and triggers the development of dementia. For the groundbreaking study, published in the journal Frontiers in Sleep, researchers followed 27 healthy men aged 35 to 70 years old who were suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. They compared them with a control group of men without sleep apnea. Their findings should give anyone with a snoring problem serious pause.

Snoring causes early-onset dementia

At the end of the study, researchers found that the group of men with sleep apnea suffered from memory loss and showed signs of early-onset dementia. The symptoms of their cognitive deficits included:
  • Reduced vigilance
  • Poor executive functioning skills
  • Disruption of short-term visual recognition memory-- or ability to recall details
  • Loss of social and emotional recognition
Yikes! All these brain-wrecking results from just snoring. How does this cognitive decline happen?

Snoring causes negative changes in the brain

The mechanism behind the damaging results of this common sleep disorder isn’t fully understood. But scientists believe that the negative impact of snoring on cognitive function is caused by low oxygen blood levels, reduced blood flow to the brain, sleep disruption, as well as neuro-inflammation. “This complex interplay is still poorly understood, but it’s likely that these lead to widespread neuroanatomical and structural changes in the brain and associated functional cognitive and emotional deficits,” said Ivana Rosenzweig, a neuropsychiatrist who heads the Sleep and Brain Plasticity Centre at King’s College London, and is the lead author of the study. But this is only the beginning… A study from Australia that we first told you about in 2020 also confirmed the link between sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s.

Brain plaques in sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s disease

The hippocampal region and brainstem are areas where the early pathological changes of Alzheimer's can be seen in the form of amyloid plaques and tau tangles. So, researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne studied hippocampal samples of 34 people after death, with an average age of 67, and the brainstem of 24 others, all with clinically verified sleep apnea. None of the people had shown signs of cognitive impairment. Researchers found both amyloid and tau in the brainstem, but this did not correlate with the severity of sleep apnea. However, the quantity of amyloid plaques in the hippocampal area did indicate the severity of sleep apnea. Their analysis, published in the journal Sleep, showed that amyloid begins in the same place and spreads in the same way in both sleep apnea and Alzheimer's disease. Identical signs of brain damage in both disorders provides important confirmation that they’re linked. Lead investigator Professor Stephen Robinson commented, "Our study is the first to find Alzheimer’s-like amyloid plaques in the brains of people with clinically-verified obstructive sleep apnea. It’s an important advance in our understanding of the links between these conditions." Other researchers have examined the link between sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s disease and uncovered similar findings.

Higher Levels of Tau

The Mayo Clinic published a study in the journal Neurology in which they used a PET scan on 292 cognitively healthy people aged 65 or older. The scientists were looking for a build-up of tau - the toxic protein linked to Alzheimer's - in the entorhinal cortex, a key memory area of the brain. They then asked the participants' bed partners to complete a questionnaire to assess whether they witnessed apneas during sleep. In other words, whether they noted if the participants snored, stopped breathing, or woke up abruptly with gasping or choking. These are all likely signs of sleep apnea. Researchers identified 43 people with suspected sleep apnea. Then, they compared brain scans of those 43 with the 249 where apneas hadn't been observed. The suspected sleep apnea group had levels of tau that were a significant 4.5 percent higher. "These results suggest a plausible mechanism that could contribute to cognitive impairment and the development of Alzheimer's disease," the researchers concluded. The research begs the question: if people with sleep apnea in midlife are more likely to develop Alzheimer's, and those with Alzheimer's are more likely to have symptoms of sleep apnea, which comes first? Does sleep apnea cause amyloid and tau to accumulate or does the build-up of amyloid and tau cause sleep apnea? Unfortunately, none of the research to date is able to tell us for sure. But what all of the researchers do agree on is that sleep apnea needs to be treated immediately.

Snoring causes numerous health problems

Frequent readers of this publication know that we’ve shared much research emphasizing the brain health dangers of poor sleep. But insufficient sleep also increases your risk of developing various medical woes, including obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, just to name a few. We also know that too little sleep has been linked to a shortened life expectancy and poor general well-being. In fact, one analysis suggests that sleeping five or fewer hours per night may increase your mortality risk by as much as 15 percent. A University of Missouri study examined sleep apnea, as well as something called epigenetic age acceleration. In layperson’s terms, this phenomenon means that a person’s biological age trumps their age in years and is linked to early death. The conclusion?

Sleep apnea does age you

This small study included 24 nonsmokers between the ages of 28 and 58 years old. Of that group, 16 had been diagnosed with sleep apnea, while eight had not. All participants underwent a sleep study, with blood and DNA analysis. According to study author Rene Cortese, sleep apnea accelerated the aging process via oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. The researchers found that OSA-induced sleep disruptions and lower oxygen levels during sleep promoted faster biological age acceleration when compared to the control group. The research begs the question...

How do you know if you have sleep apnea?

Symptoms of sleep apnea include:
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Loud snoring
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Prolonged headaches in the morning
Major risk factors for sleep apnea include middle or old age, obesity, smoking, having chronic nasal blockages, experiencing high blood pressure, and your gender-- more men suffer from sleep apnea than women.

You might suffer with sleep apnea and not know it

Research shows that sleep apnea is currently under-diagnosed and may affect one billion adults worldwide-- that's billion with a "B." Unfortunately, eight out of ten sleep apnea sufferers don’t know they have it. That means you could be at far greater risk for cognitive impairments and serious memory issues-- even dementia -- and not even know it. So, if you or your partner snore, it’s time to take action.

Sleep apnea next steps

Your doctor can prescribe a sleep clinic study to determine whether you have sleep apnea. If you do have it, he will likely recommend a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine that uses a nasal mask and mild air pressure to keep your airways open during sleep. A recent study published in The Critical Respiratory Journal found that patients who regularly used their CPAP machine had a lower number of upper airway problems related to sleep apnea and even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These patients improved lung function and improved their overall breathing ability. And when it comes to aging, CPAP helps that, too. Researchers found that, when they started using CPAP, study participants were able to reverse the aging trend. “The OSA patients who adhered to CPAP showed a deceleration of the epigenetic age, while the age acceleration trends did not change for the control group,” Prof. Cortese explained. “Our results suggest that biological age acceleration is at least partially reversible when effective treatment of OSA is implemented.” The key to success, researchers say, is that you have to be sure you get the right type of mask.

Choosing your CPAP therapy mask

There are two types of masks used with CPAP machines. The oronasal mask covers your mouth and nose and is typically used by people who breathe through their mouths. And the nasal pillow mask fits inside your nostrils and is generally used by people who breathe through their nose. A study of 14 patients with sleep apnea showed that participants experienced a significant increase in airway collapsibility when using the oronasal mask-- and that's not a good thing. This means that sleep apnea symptoms such as fragmented sleep and sleep disordered breathing increased. That's why it's important to have a good respiratory therapist to help you set up your CPAP and choose the best mask for your situation.

Our takeaway

This research is just more proof that sleep apnea is bad for your body. In addition to affecting your overall health, it also affects your brain and can cause significant memory problems. If you snore or have untreated obstructive sleep apnea, then it's critical that you work with your doctor to restore healthy sleep and solve any sleep breathing problems. Best Regards, The Awakening From Alzheimer’s Team  

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