- New research shows that sleep apnea can increase your risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.
- Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by interrupted breathing during sleep, resulting in interrupted sleep, frequent awakenings, and lack of restful sleep.
- Experts explain the findings and the importance of diagnosing and treating sleep apnea.
If you find yourself snoring or often waking up suddenly at night, you may have Sleep Apnea. While snoring is often considered of little concern, new research shows that sleep apnea could put you at increased risk for stroke, Alzheimer’s diseaseand cognitive decline.
A study recently published in Neurology involved 140 participants, with an average age of 73, from the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. These participants did not have dementia and had undergone at least one brain MRI and polysomnogram (PSG), an overnight study in a sleep laboratory.
The study looked at sleep factors and biomarkers of brain white matter health. Biomarkers measure how well white matter in the brain is preserved, which is important for connecting different parts of the brain. One of the biomarkers, white matter hyperintensities, are tiny lesions seen on brain scans. White matter hyperintensities become more common with age or with uncontrolled elevation arterial pressure. The other biomarker measures the integrity of axons, which form the nerve fibers that connect nerve cells.
Researchers have found a potential association between sleep apnea, reduced deep sleep and signs indicating early cerebrovascular disease, which is associated with an increased risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline . They found that for every 10-point decrease in the percentage of slow (deep) sleep, there was an increase in white matter hyperintensities (small brain lesions), similar to the effect of aging 2.3 years, and a decrease in axonal integrity. (brain cell communication), similar to three-year aging.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by interrupted breathing during sleep, often resulting in awakenings during the night and a general lack of restful sleep. Patrick Porter, Ph.D., neuroscientist and creator and CEO of BrainTap. “This condition can be classified as mild, moderate or severe, depending on its severity.” People with sleep apnea often experience a reduction in deep sleep time, also known as slow wave sleep or stage 3 non-REM sleep, which is a crucial indicator of sleep quality, explains- he.
How Does Sleep Apnea Affect Long-Term Brain Health?
Sleep apnea is associated with reduced oxygenation, increased adrenaline rushes (as your body recognizes the lack of oxygen and prompts you to wake up), hypertension, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), atrial fibrillationpoor quality sleep (shallower sleep and REM sleep) and risk of cognitive decline, says Dale Bredesen, MD, neuroscientist and specialist in neurodegenerative diseases. “Thus, it is a relatively common, often undiagnosed, often undertreated probable cause of cognitive decline in many individuals.”
Deep sleep plays a crucial role in brain restoration and memory consolidation, Porter says. “When people with sleep apnea spend less time in this restorative sleep phase, it can impair their cognitive function and increase the risk of cognitive decline over time,” he adds. And because sleep apnea is associated with hypertension and atrial fibrillation, people with the disorder are at increased risk of stroke, Dr. Bredesen says.
Simply put, a brain that isn’t well-rested tends to function less well, says Amit Sachdev, MD, director of the division of neuromuscular medicine at Michigan State University. “It manifests in changes in decision-making and mood.”
How to know if you have sleep apnea and how to treat it
As you’d expect, many people find they have sleep apnea from their partner who witnesses their sleep being interrupted at night.
Everyone should check their oxygen status at night (at least occasionally), and this can be done with portable or with an oximeter (inexpensive to buy, or you can borrow one from your practitioner), suggests Dr. Bredesen. “If suspected, get a sleep study, which is the gold standard for determining if you have sleep apnea.” A normal number of apneic events, or pauses in breathing, is less than 5 per hour of sleep, says Dr. Bredesen.
Also note that if you often wake up short of breath, snore, do not feel rested upon waking in the morning, or are at higher risk due to your build (men with short necks high risk), you should consider a sleep study to determine your diagnosis, advises Dr. Bredesen.
If sleep apnea is diagnosed, there are several treatment options available, Porter says. “The most common and effective treatment is positive airway pressure therapy, which involves wearing a mask over the nose or nose and mouth while sleeping.” This mask, also known as a CPAP device, delivers a continuous flow of air, keeping the airways open and preventing interruptions in breathing.
Additionally, lifestyle changes can contribute significantly to sleep apnea management, Porter adds. “This can include maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol and sedatives before bed, sleeping on your side rather than your back, and establishing a consistent sleep routine.”
The bottom line
Ultimately, brain health is a basic issue, says Dr. Sachdev: “Good sleep, stress reduction, and good nutrition are all important.”
Recognizing the impact of sleep apnea on these neurological conditions is crucial for early intervention and prevention, Porter says. “Prioritizing healthy sleep and seeking appropriate treatment, such as positive airway pressure therapy, can help alleviate breathing disturbances during sleep, improve sleep quality, and can potentially make a significant difference in the reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive decline and stroke associated with sleep apnea.”
Sleep apnea is “one of the common contributors we see in our patients with cognitive decline, and it is often overlooked by physicians, so it is important for patients and family members to be aware of it and discuss it with their practitioners,” adds Dr. Bredesen.
Magdalene, Preventionassociate editor of, has a history with health writing from her experience as an editorial assistant at WebMD and her personal research while in college. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience — and she helps strategize for success across Preventionsocial media platforms.