Sleep apnea may put you at increased risk for dementia

The connection between sleep apnea—a cessation of oxygen to the brain during sleep—and cognitive impairment has long been recognized. However, the reason people with sleep disorders are at greater risk for cognitive decline has not been fully understood.

Small changes to the blood vessels in the brain are suspected but, often, these patients will have “normal” brain scans and typical clinical workups fail to reveal an underlying condition. Of course, lack of a good night’s sleep is likely to result in fatigue, which may impact attention and other cognitive functions, as well as mood. But, is there another common thread?

A study presented at the 2019 American Academy of Neurology meeting shed some new light on this question. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging found that study participants who snored and had sleep apnea were more likely to have a buildup of tau, a toxic protein found in Alzheimer’s disease, particularly in an area of the brain called the entorhinal cortex, which helps govern a number of facets of memory.

In a living patient, measures of tau can only be made based on specialized tau PET imaging or analysis of cerebral spinal fluid, which are not part of a typical clinical evaluation but are often utilized in clinical research studies.

The powerful effects of sleep have also been touted by a growing body of research showing that, in normal brain functioning, restful sleep provides the conduit by which the brain rids itself of toxic buildup – “junk” – by way of cerebrospinal fluid. This is why I urge my patients to prioritize good sleep hygiene and to consult with a sleep specialist for sleep problems.

Good Sleep Habits

Here are some ways to cultivate good sleep habits and sleep hygiene:

  • Avoid alcohol before bedtime
  • Avoid caffeine late in the day
  • Avoid using smartphones, tablets and computers for at least an hour before bed
  • Get enough physical activity to ensure the body is tired at bedtime
  • Keep sleeping areas dark, quiet and at a comfortable temperature
  • Keep consistent wakeup times and bedtimes (yes, even on weekends)
  • Try to keep a few hours between the last meal and bedtime

Good sleep provides one very important way of promoting healthy brain aging and reducing risk factors for dementia. It turns out that so-called “beauty sleep” is much more than skin-deep.

If you, or a loved one, are concerned about cognitive change caused by a sleep or other disorder, contact us at The Cognitive and Research Center of New Jersey to see how we can help.