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Is There a Link Between Early Onset Dementia and Sleep Apnea?

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If you suffer from sleep apnea, you are most likely familiar with the brain fog, excessive daytime sleepiness, and other mental and cognitive symptoms that come with this sleeping disorder.

However, new research is indicating that chronic sleep apnea may cause ongoing issues, as well. A recent study showed evidence of a link between sleep apnea and early-onset dementia.

People with Obstructive Sleep Apnea showed brain changes that were similar to those of people suffering from the early stages of dementia. While a causal link has not been established, the connection between sleep apnea and dementia is becoming better understood. Over time, research in this area may help people reduce their risk of dementia.

Can Sleep Apnea Affect Your Memory?

When you have sleep apnea, it is not uncommon to wake up in the morning feeling fatigued, even when you have gotten a full night’s sleep. Other sleep apnea symptoms can include depression, irritability, headaches, and mood swings, none of which are good for your mental acuity.

Effects of untreated sleep apnea over time can include serious cognitive impairment. In many people, sleep apnea can lead to insomnia and sleep deprivation. According to studies, being awake for 20 consecutive hours or more affects the brain as much as having a 0.10 blood alcohol content. Poor sleep quality can also cause issues with cognitive function, including the ability to form new memories. In the sleep apnea study, researchers found that people who had low levels of oxygen in their blood had reduced thickness in the temporal lobes of their brain. These regions are important in memory. People who have dementia also have reduced thickness in these areas.

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Is There a Link Between Sleep Apnea and Dementia?

Researchers in Australia recently performed a study on sleep apnea and dementia that involved older adults. These individuals had all recently visited their doctors concerning issues with memory or mood, but did not have a previous sleep apnea diagnosis. During the study, researchers performed tests to assess the participants’ memory skills. Each participant was given an MRI scan that measured different parts of their brains. Then, the participants attended a sleep clinic where they were monitored overnight to look for signs of sleep apnea. The test measured brain activity and measured oxygen levels in the blood throughout the night.

What researchers learned was that the patients who had signs of Obstructive Sleep Apnea also had signs that pointed toward dementia. These signs included changes in the brain in areas that affect mood, memory formation, recall, and other areas.

Can Sleep Apnea Lead to Brain Damage?

At this point, researchers are not ready to propose a causal link between sleep apnea and the brain damage that is associated with dementia. However, a strong correlation between the two has been seen in studies of people who suffer from sleep apnea and show signs of age-related cognitive decline. More research is being done in the area to more firmly establish causation, as well as possible therapies that can address sleep apnea and stop the brain damage that leads to dementia.

Sleep apnea and vascular dementia are likely linked through reduced oxygen levels. When someone has sleep apnea, their breathing is interrupted due to obstructions in the airways. These interruptions in breathing can sometimes occur hundreds of times a night. The result is less oxygen in the blood, which could leave brain tissue vulnerable to damage.

Once the brain damage that causes dementia occurs, it is not reversible. However, doctors have had some success in slowing the progression of dementia. Since between 30 and 50% of the risk for dementia is linked to modifiable risk factors that include obesity, inactivity, hypertension, depression, and possibly also sleep apnea, addressing those could help halt the advance of dementia in some patients.

It’s well established that effective sleep apnea treatment can allow you to get better quality sleep each night. And, better sleep means better memory and sharper cognitive skills. Evidence that the benefits of treatment can extend to reduced dementia risk continues to mount. Experts are studying the potential for CPAP machines can prevent cognitive decline in those who are considered at risk for age-related dementia. With a good diagnosis and effective treatment, you may be able to protect your memory and brain health well into old age.

  • David Repasky

    David Repasky has been using CPAP treatment since 2017 and has first-hand experience with what it's like to live with Sleep Apnea. He brings the patient's perspective to the CPAP.com blog and has received formal training in CPAP machines, masks, and equipment.

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23 Responses

  1. The article specifies obstructive sleep apnea as a potential villain for dementia. Is there a distinction between central and obstructive apnea?

    1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea differs from Central Sleep Apnea in many ways, but most importantly, Central Sleep Apnea happens because the brain isn’t sending signals to your lungs to breathe. In Obstructive Sleep Apnea, the signal is there, but your airway is blocked and you choke or gasp for air. That’s the biggest difference between Central Sleep Apnea and Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

  2. Please include more wci notifications study content and reference, allowing access to source material relied on. Are there scientific articles Iexamining sleep apnea and inability to remain asleep?

  3. Hi David,
    I’m so glad to see this article posted! Thank you! I was finally diagnosed in 2012 with severe OSA and everything I experienced up to the point of diagnosis, I realized, was SO similar if not exactly the same as what someone experiencing early dementia or Alzheimer’s might experience…and I might add…as many Sleep Apnea patients would know…scary as hell! I wrote an article (my story) for my workplace newsletter at the time…and at the end I posed the question…”What if Alzheimer’s might simply be untreated Sleep Apnea?” So many symptoms of OSA go unrecognized in published articles with only the most common of the symptoms listed…and the greatest injustice of all to OSA patients (in my opinion) is the notion that we all snore. I truly believe that is how many people are misdiagnosed. Even some family doctors don’t recognize the symptoms. I finally had to tell my doctor at the time that I needed to be tested…after years of issues and him blaming my troubles on everything under the sun EXCEPT OSA. Thanks again for this article!

  4. I’ve been using coal machine for 2 years. Prior to that I was depressed, always tired, negative thinking, woke ep 6 times a night. Now I sleep all night wake up 1 time to use the bathroom, no depression, alot of energy, positive outlook. And love that machine which saved my life. Thank you CPAP it’s a lifesaver. The first 3 weeks took time to get use to. You gotta put mark on when not using it to get used to. I suggest to join the blog if your a new user you will meet others in same situation. And can give you tips.

  5. I live in Bogota, Colombia, South America, very high altitude. I have being using Cpap therapy for more than 6 years, but here, where I live I use it with oxygen ( with the special heating coil with the entrance for the oxigen pipe).
    And it has improove my sleeping. Although the blozting sensation during the day is worse, maybe because of the altitude.

  6. So. After yrs of early am migraines-I attributed to sinus issues, my ENT stated she believed I had sleep apnea. Not restrictive airway apnea but brain apnea. All the same symptims but different cause. My sleep study showed severe brain apnea which wud lead to onset of dementia. Brain apnea tends to come about in ilder people. 55 and over. At 65 yrs of age I have had a machine fir 5 months. Have stayed away from Apria as they are horrible to deal with. Yes troubles with mask rtc. But almost all figured out and my emotional mental health is improved. Energy levels. All of it. SO. Apnea results two ways. Early am migraine/type headaches are warning sing of severe oxygen deprivation. Survival instinct to wake the person. Have to get up to deal with heafache and thus come out of apnea state. Life saving. I thanked my ENY dr as she may have saved my sanity and my life

    1. I’m glad I treat my Sleep Apnea too. I think it makes a big difference in a lot of areas of my life. I’m more awake, have more energy, and am a lot less tired. Glad to hear your treatment is working for you!

  7. The information you provide is helpful. I receive care at the VA Hospital in TN but they do not make this information available. to patients with sleep apnea.

  8. I was treated for sleep apnea since 2007. It was like a light switch went on after only 1 week. I have never missed a day since. I am happy since someone listened and pointed me in the right direction. I don’t like using the mask, but the alternative is not very attractive.

    1. That’s great advice! I feel similarly about my treatment. If you stick with it, you’ll experience a lot of positive benefits that you would miss out on if you didn’t do it.

  9. Thank you, David, for this readable summary of the current research. As a C-PAP user for over 20 years now, it reminds me how grateful I am to have been diagnosed and treated. As a psychologist who is sensitive to sleep disorders in my patients, I’ll copy your summary to pass on when someone needs the information.

    1. You may need to talk to your doctor. It could be that you’re at the wrong pressure setting for your machine, and it would take a sleep study to confirm this. Also, have you tried to help out your machine by sleeping on your side? When you sleep on your side, gravity can help to naturally keep your airway open. I find when I sleep on my side, I get more benefit out of the machine, than when I sleep on my back.

  10. I was part of a research, Sprint study to see what effects high blood pressure might have on the onset of dementia, heart decease and diabetes. I haven’t read or heard what the results of it are but I was part of the group that was medicated to reduce my pressures to below 120 and I hated it. No energy. .I also felt badly about having the memory tests I did once a year. Felt I didn’t do well. Have you heard of this study and what is the findings of it, if you know. Thank s

  11. My husband and I both have CPAP machines that we use every night. I saw a doctor recently and they commented on how much more awake and alive and present I seemed. I could attributed this to my CPAP routine that I use religiously I still like to sleep a lot which I just read is a sign of CPAP or dementia that is troubling to me. I find that I pretty much feel tired all day and look forward to taking a nap are going to bed. However I still have this habit of staying up late and watching TV. It’s an old habit from my growing up years. Hard to change but I think I need to work on that too. Great article really appreciate the information and responses from other people using the CPAP machine

  12. Ive been using the cpap device since 2000. Had CFS, depression, irritability but 1 night at sleep clinic was amazing. From taking naps in my car during work hours to fully functional life. Thanks for the article and blog posts.

  13. Good info keep up the good work David !how can I stop mouth breathing tried chin straps of all kinds would like to go to nasal from full mask thanks

    1. Hi Fred! If a chinstrap isn’t working for you, I’m not sure there’s much more you can do. The best piece of advice I can give is to choose a mask that best reflects how you sleep. We all have different sleeping styles, and if you select the best CPAP mask for your sleeping style, you’ll have better results.

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