Studies Begin to Look at Relationship Between Sleep Apnea, Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Did you get a good night’s sleep last night? Or did you end up snoring the night away?

    Sleep is believed to have an important role in memory, according to Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine. Researchers continue to explore whether a relationship exists between the various stages of sleep and the binding of different types of memories. However, most people don’t get enough sleep, which can affect judgment, mood and the ability to learn and remember information. Furthermore long-term chronic sleep deprivation may contribute to health conditions.

    One issue that sometimes hampers the quality of rest is sleep apnea. This condition is a common disorder in which a person experiences one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while asleep. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and may occur 30 times or more an hour. When normal breathing starts again, the person may emit a loud snort or choking sound. And when breathing stops or becomes shallow, a person often moves out of deep sleep and into light sleep, which decreases the quality of a person’s overall sleep. Untreated sleep apnea has bound found to increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and heart failure. 

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    Sleep Apnea and Alzheimer’s Disease

    So what about Alzheimer’s disease? A new small study out of New York University’s School of Medicine suggests there may be a correlation between sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s disease. Admittedly, this is a small study, but it’s a finding worth keeping an eye on as long-term studies look more closely at this relationship.

    This study involved 68 participants who were between the ages of 60 and into the 80s. The average age of the participants was 71.

    The researchers assessed the participants’ sleep partners. They found that approximately 25 percent had symptoms of moderate to severe breathing problems while asleep which is a symptom of a potential case of sleep apnea. About 50 percent of the participants experienced mild breathing problems. Interestingly, the participants didn’t complain about sleepiness or issues with concentration, which suffers of sleep apnea experience. The researchers also looked at participants’ biological signs such as brain damage and decreased use of glucose in the brain that indicates an increased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.


    Their analysis found that participants who were thinner and who had breathing problems while asleep were more likely to have these biological indicators. However, sleep apnea most often is linked to having excessive weight so you'd expect the heavier study participants to have these indicators. Surprisingly, though, the researchers found that obese participants who suffered breathing problems while asleep didn’t seem to have an extra risk of Alzheimer’s; additionally, being slightly overweight seemed to lower the risk of this disease.

  • The researchers plan to launch a follow-up longitudinal study. This study will involve older people who have sleep breathing problems who will be monitored over time to determine whether getting a treatment to improve their breathing while asleep has an effect on whether they develop Alzheimer’s disease.

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    More About Sleep Apnea

    Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed since doctors usually can’t detect the condition during routine office visits and there isn’t a blood test to diagnose the condition. The first signs often are identified by a family member or bed partner who notices the signs.

    Major signs of sleep apnea include long and chronic snoring that may include pauses. Choking or gasping may happen after the pauses. However, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Another common sign that you may have this condition is feelings of sleepiness while awake. Other signs include morning headaches, memory or learning problems, difficulty concentrating, waking up frequently to urinate, having a dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening, or feeling irritable, depressed or having mood swings or personality changes.

    So even though additional research needs to be done in relation to sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s disease, it still is worthwhile to talk to your doctor about sleep apnea if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms (or if a loved one notices any of the signs while you're asleep). Finding out about this condition can help you safeguard your overall health.

    Primary Source for This Sharepost:

    Medline Plus. (2013). Sleep apnea in seniors tied to Alzheimer’s in study.

    National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. (2013). What are the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea.

    Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine. (nd.) Sleep, learning and memory.

Published On: May 21, 2013