Cognitive impairment associated with obstructive sleep apnea

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Data from five population studies suggest that better sleep may help protect cognitive function in adults. Image credit: ismagilov/Getty Images.
  • A new analysis looking at data from five population-based studies delved deeper into the relationship between obstructive sleep apnea, lack of adequate sleep, and cognitive function.
  • The analysis showed that prevention of obstructive sleep apnea – when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep – and better sleep consolidation were associated with better cognitive function in the participants.
  • In contrast, shorter sleep duration was associated with decreased attention and other cognitive problems.

In adults without dementia, sleep consolidation and the absence of obstructive sleep apnea may be important for optimizing cognition with aging, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers looked at data from five population-based studies across the United States with at least 5 years of follow-up. Studies were nocturnal sleep studies with neuropsychological assessments. They analyzed the data between March 2020 and June 2023.

The researchers looked at sleep studies specific to sleep consolidation and sleep apnea and their association with the risk of dementia and related cognitive and brain function.

The study included 5,945 adults with no history or presence of stroke or dementia.

The researchers found that better sleep consolidation and absence of obstructive sleep apnea are associated with higher cognitive function, and short sleep duration was associated with poorer attention and processing speed.

Consolidated sleep refers to sleep that is continuous and uninterrupted by night awakenings.

Obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by episodes of airway collapse, which can reduce oxygen levels and result in fragmented and non-restorative sleep.

The researchers also found that better sleep consolidation and absence of sleep apnea were associated with better cognition during the 5-year follow-up.

The researchers suggested that these results indicated that more research is needed on the role of interventions in improving consolidated sleep to maintain cognitive function.

“Some aspects (of this study) were predictive and further reinforced concepts related to the relationship between sleep and cognition over time,” Dr. Vernon Williamsa sports neurologist, pain management specialist and founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, who is not involved in this study, said Medical News Today.

“An interesting and less predictable finding in this study was the lack of correlation between cognitive decline and specific sleep stages. One would have predicted that a reduction in slow, deep sleep would be more detrimental than other stages, but this was not the case. There are many potential explanations, but it’s an interesting finding.”

– Dr. Vernon Williams

“This study (further) helps by demonstrating effects across multiple groups of participants and by demonstrating that overall sleep efficiency,” continued Dr. Williams, “as well as the presence of obstructive sleep apnea—whether or not a previous diagnosis exists—significantly affects cognition over time.”

Obstructive sleep apnea is a common condition where breathing stops. It reboots many times while you sleep, according to National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Medical experts estimate that between 25 and 30% of men and between 9 and 17% of women have obstructive sleep apnea. The prevalence increases with age.

The most common type of sleep apnea is a narrowing or collapse of the upper airway that stops airflow. When this happens, the person stops breathing for a short period of time and then starts again during sleep and is typically unaware that this is happening.

It can lead to poor sleep quality, difficulty concentrating, and problems with decision-making and memory.

According to American Lung AssociationSigns of sleep apnea include:

It is also associated with other health conditions. Research shows that obstructive sleep apnea can increase the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Dr. Laura DeCesarissaid a doctor of functional medicine and health and wellness coach who was not involved in the study MNT that lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, not smoking and not drinking, can help reduce obstructive sleep apnea.

In addition, she offered the following tips for improving sleep:

  • manage stress more effectively and be aware of where the body holds stress – many people hold tension in their neck and shoulders, resulting in this forward head carriage and posture not conducive to proper breathing
  • pay attention to sleep position, as sleeping on your side can sometimes help with symptoms
  • as chronic inflammation of the gut and nasal passages often makes it difficult to breathe through the nose, changing the diet and switching to a more anti-inflammatory diet where possible can help
  • exercise regularly
  • stay hydrated and try a humidifier in the bedroom, especially in a dry climate.

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