Sleep apnea is the stoppage of breathing, during sleep, which can have serious health consequences.
These breathing disruptions can leave you tired the next day. Plus, it also lowers the amount of oxygen in your blood. This can harm the function of internal organs and/or intensify other health conditions
Sleep apnea can speed up cognitive decline. Patients with untreated sleep apnea were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment more than a decade earlier than those patients who slept well.
Published in the journal Neurology, a study found that patients with sleep apnea and/or snoring were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment more than a decade sooner than those without sleep apnea.
On average, patients with untreated sleep apnea started suffering cognitive impairment at the age of 77, compared to 90 for those without breathing problems.
Patients who underwent treatment for their sleep apnea started declining mentally at the same age as those who did not have sleep apnea.
Furthermore, onset of Alzheimer’s disease was also more rapid among patients with untreated sleep apnea. On average, Alzheimer’s disease patients were diagnosed about five years earlier than those slept well.
Reduced oxygen levels is not the only reason sleep apnea may hasten cognitive decline. Lack of sleep also promotes Alzheimer’s by preventing critical brain detoxification. The brain’s waste removal system, known as the Glymphatic System, only functions during deep sleep.
The Glymphatic System allows your brain to clear out toxins, including harmful proteins called amyloid-beta. The buildup of amyloid-beta proteins has been linked to Alzheimer’s. Thus, without proper sleep, harmful waste begins to amass in your brain.
Why sleep apnea may affect memory
Memories are formed in the mammillary bodies (structures on the underside of the brain that resemble small breasts). When neuroscientists scanned the brains of 43 sleep apnea patients and 66 healthy volunteers using MRI, they discovered that sleep apnea patients’ mammillary bodies were nearly 20% smaller than those of the normal sleepers.
In the past, it was thought that memory discrepancy was just because their sleep was disturbed and they felt terrible. However, it appears that the brain is actually injured. The specific brain structure that’s damaged is one of several that transfer recent memories into long-term memories.
It has been hypothesized that chronic drops in oxygen lead to this brain injury with the more severe cases that go untreated may lead to greater damage in the mammillary bodies. Diminutive mammillary bodies, have also been found in patients with chronic alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease.