A man sleeps in a bed beside his two young daughters. He's wearing a CPAP sleep apnea mask.
Many sleep apnea patients report that CPAP masks are very uncomfortable. (Photo Credit: CC BY-ND/Rachel/Flickr)

A lack of energy and difficulty concentrating are common symptoms of sleep apnea, a treatable disorder. According to a new study by researchers from the University of California San Francisco and California Pacific Medical Center, however, sleep apnea sufferers may need to worry about something more serious. The condition may lead to cognitive impairment and even dementia.

Stable breathing, better brains

Sleep apnea causes a person to momentarily stop breathing while sleeping. The UCSF-led study, which started with 298 dementia-free women with an average age of 82, found that those with sleep apnea and related sleep disorders that halt breathing are “much more likely” than those without the condition to develop dementia within five years. While the study did not include men, researchers believe the same results will apply.

This is the first study of its kind to suggest that sleep problems may be a direct cause – rather than an effect – of cognitive impairment or dementia. According to UCSF study leader Dr. Kristine Yaffe, the findings may not be absolutely conclusive, but the data appears to point to the connection.

“The extent of information has been limited before because the studies were based on people with advanced dementia who, surprise, surprise, had sleep problems,” she said. “What we’re seeing is a nearly twofold increase of having cognitive problems five years later.”

Results of the sleep apnea study were published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Sleep apnea study results and dementia

Among study participants who had sleep apnea at the start of the UCSF study, 45 percent began to show early signs of dementia within five years of the beginning of the study. By comparison, 31 percent of women without sleep apnea went on to develop some form of cognitive impairment during the study period.

Previous studies focused on treating sleep apnea have suggested that doing so can improve cognitive function. The UCSF study is the first to link this to abating onset dementia, which is why researchers are excited about the public health implications involved. Scientists predict that additional clinical trials will show that treating sleep apnea will not only help in the fight against dementia, but other chronic illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression.

Treating sleep apnea is difficult

While treating sleep apnea is important, Dr. Marci Teresi of the Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Memory Clinic told the San Francisco Chronicle that the treatment process is difficult. Patients must sleep with CPAP sleep apnea masks to force the airway open. The masks are reportedly uncomfortable and hard to use, noted Teresi. As many as half of patients stop using them.

“I have plenty of patients who struggle with the mask,” Teresi said. “But if this is something we could actually treat and prevent dementia, that would be great.”

Shaq has sleep apnea

Sources

International Business Times: http://bit.ly/pXsQ9Y

San Francisco Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/08/10/MNJK1KLC2V.DTL&tsp=1

University of California San Francisco: http://bit.ly/ntQZSA

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