Women with Sleep Apnea at Risk for Dementia
Older women who have sleep apnea have an 85% greater risk of developing dementia than those without it, according to a study announced in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this month.
Previous studies had linked sleep disordered breathing to cognitive dysfunction, but until the research findings of this study, it was unclear whether or not there was a direct link between sleep apnea and dementia. The research not only showed a link, but indicated that 85% of the older women diagnosed with sleep apnea who did not have dementia when the study began, developed dementia or milder cognitive dysfunction over the course of the 5 year study. An estimated 18 million Americans have sleep apnea including one in four women over 65.
The researchers studied 298 women of a mean age of 82.3 years when they began the study. The women were diagnosed with sleep apnea using overnight sleep polysomnography studies. During an apnea event, the airway becomes obstructed during sleep, blocking air flow and resulting in waking with a start gasping for air. If they had more than 15 apnea episodes per hour, they were diagnosed as having sleep apnea. People who suffer from sleep apnea stop breathing dozens of times during sleep and may not breathe for as much as three fourths of the time that they’re sleep. Apnea is particularly severe and life threatening when there are more than twenty or thirty events per hour. If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to additional health problems such as high blood pressure, arrhythmia, various heart diseases, lung dysfunction and stroke.
It now seems this study proves we should add dementia to the list of sleep apnea dangers. Dementia causes nerve cells to stop functioning, lose connections with other neurons and die. It impairs intellectual functioning, and severely interferes with their ability to live their normal lives. Patients with dementia often lose their ability to solve problems and reason, suffer memory loss, and have changes in their behavior. They may become irrational, aggravated, or have delusions or hallucinations.
Researchers believe that the link between sleep apnea and dementia is due to the oxygen deprivation caused by apnea and its harmful effects on brain cells, although the study was not meant to discover the specific trigger. This groundbreaking study may have significant meaning to the health community as it could lead to further research to discover how dementia and cognitive impairment in the elderly may one day be preventable or reversed.
The research was conducted by Kristine Yaffe, MD; Alison M. Laffan, PhD; Stephanie Litwack Harrison, MPH; Susan Redline, MD, MPH; Adam P. Spira, PhD; Kristine E. Ensrud, MD; Sonia Ancoli-Israel, PhD; and Katie L. Stone, PhD. To read more about the study, visit JAMA’s August 10th issue here.
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