By Gina Roberts-Grey
It is no secret that a good night’s sleep recharges your mental and physical batteries. But time in dreamland is thought to be vital also to your brain’s health and its ability to learn and remember.
When you’re asleep, your brain is hard at work processing information from the day and forming memories. But sleep-deprived brains are less able to process and store information.
And while sleep deprivation caused by sleep apnea can bring on other serious health issues including hypertension, obesity and diabetes, a new study links sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s disease, either as a factor in the development of Alzheimer’s or as a result of the disease’s early stages.
The study, presented at the American Thoracic Society’s 2013 International Conference, looked at sleep-disordered breathing—or breathing that stops and starts several times during the night, as is the case with sleep apnea—and risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.
And although the researchers aren’t certain whether sleep apnea is a result or a symptom of Alzheimer’s, they are certain weight plays a role.
Seniors who are thin (have a body mass index of less than 25) and have sleep apnea are more likely to have “biomarkers"—biological signs—of an increased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. These signs indicate brain damage and decreased use of glucose in the brain, said study lead author Dr. Ricardo Osorio, a research assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine.
“This is just a correlation. We do not know if these people will develop Alzheimer’s in the future, and we don’t know how much risk they have,” Osorio said. “In the future, we might able to predict the risk.” But, he noted, there may indeed be a link between sleep, aging and memory, which severely declines in Alzheimer’s patients.
"It’s clear that sleep is important for memory, and sleep changes as you get older,” he said. “Disrupted breathing during sleep also increases with aging.”
Ironically, even though being overweight or obese increases the risk of sleep apnea, obese study participants with breathing problems didn’t appear to have as much of an extra risk of Alzheimer’s.
Symptoms of sleep apnea, according to the Mayo Clinic, include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
- Loud snoring
- Episodes of stopping breathing during sleep witnessed by another person
- Waking up abruptly short of breath
- Waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat or a morning headache
- Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
- Attention problems
If you experience any of these symptoms, speak to your doctor about your risk of sleep apnea and, if necessary, get tested. You might just sleep better and save your memory, too.