Sleep apnea linked to memory decline, dementia

Tue Aug 9, 2011 8:54pm EDT
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By Genevra Pittman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Older women who have sleep apnea may be more likely to develop memory problems and dementia, according to a new study.

It's not clear yet whether treating the sleep apnea can help prevent that memory decline -- but researchers say future studies should address that question.

"It makes sense that good sleep is going to be protective to the brain," said Dr. Robert Thomas, who studies sleep at Harvard Medical School in Boston and was not involved in the new study.

But, he added, clear answers have been lacking on the link between problem sleeping and memory. "We simply don't have data to answer many of the simple questions people may have in the sleep clinic," he told Reuters Health.

To try to shrink that gap, Dr. Kristine Yaffe of the University of California, San Francisco and colleagues gave an overnight sleep apnea test to 298 women without dementia, who were an average of 82 years old. The test looks for changes in breathing and oxygen flow during the night, as well as for the short, frequent breaks in sleep that are signs of sleep apnea.

Just over a third of the women had sleep apnea -- which is especially common in older, overweight people.

About five years later, the researchers brought those same women in for a set of thinking and memory tests, and doctors evaluated any of the women who showed signs of memory decline.

In total, a little over a third (36 percent) of the women were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or dementia.   Continued...