Sleep Apnea: Does It Cause Dementia?

Monday, August 26, 2013 Stef dela Cruz, MD 0 Comments

You’ve probably seen way too many posters about sleep apnea going around, but it’s only recently that people are talking about whether or not sleep apnea can cause dementia. Is there a link? If so, why are both conditions related?

But before we get to that, let’s touch on what sleep apnea is. The word “apnea” is a medical term that connotes “absent breathing”. Of course, it’s not an accurate translation, but you get the drift.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

In obstructive sleep apnea, a person has prolonged pauses in breathing. People suffering from sleep apnea often snore when they sleep – and you often see them stop breathing altogether before they snort and start breathing again.

Sleep apnea
Whenever I write about sleep apnea, I remember our little dog who snores like crazy. He looks sleepy and tired, like a person would if he had sleep apnea!

You’ve probably seen your parents or your partner snore like that without really thinking the way they “snored” posed a danger to their health. But the biological markers found in Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia, have been found to be associated with sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea and Dementia Linked Together

Researchers still don’t know whether sleep apnea can lead to Alzheimer’s disease or if it’s the other way around. In any case, it’s better to err on the side of caution, hence it’s best for people with disordered breathing in sleep to seek medical attention.

About 2 percent of all females in the United States and other Western countries are actually suffering from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can lead to a temporary cognitive deficit, especially in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment of sleep apnea improves cognitive function, further proving the link between dementia and sleep-disordered breathing.

During episodes of sleep apnea, oxygen doesn’t reach the brain. This momentary loss of oxygen leads to a greater risk for dementia, especially among older women.

Sleep Apnea: Other Related Diseases

You’re probably thinking, “Well, I don’t need to worry about sleep apnea because dementia is something I probably won’t have. Besides, it happens only to older people.” If so, I can’t begin to tell you how wrong you are – and in several counts, at that.

After all, sleep apnea puts you at risk for many other diseases – and yes, some of them are a matter of life and death. Here are several evidence-based factoids and updates you should know about sleep apnea.

  • Sleep apnea and erectile dysfunction are distant cousins. If you don’t breathe properly during sleep, chances are, your “junior” will start dozing off just when you want it to wake up! However, the nature of the association between sleep apnea and erectile dysfunction is yet to be defined. (Which leads to which? Are they just consequences of some other condition, like obesity? Doctors are still trying to establish the evidence.)

    You might be thinking, “Hey, loss of libido isn’t a matter of life and death!” You’re wrong. It is. Ask someone with erectile dysfunction – go ahead. Winking smile
  • When you stop breathing in sleep, your heart just might stop beating, too. Although you might think it’s “common sense”, doctors came to this conclusion after they gathered enough proof that sleep apnea just about doubles your risk for sudden cardiac death.
  • Sleep apnea is associated with obesity or being overweight. Other diseases also linked to excessive weight gain, therefore, are relatives of sleep apnea as well.

If your spouse keeps telling you that you snore like a freight train, it won’t hurt to get yourself checked for sleep apnea. (Not all people who snore have sleep apnea, but you’ll never know if you do or don’t until you get checked, yes?)

Your doctor may recommend that you get treated for sleep apnea, being overweight, and other conditions that either lead to or are caused by sleep apnea. Either way, it’s best not to “sleep on it”, lest you “forget”. (See what I did there? Smile )

If you know someone who snores and you don’t know how to tell them that they should get checked for sleep apnea, share this health article with them on Facebook. When they finally “get it”, feel free to thank me later!

Stef dela CruzAbout the blogger
Stef dela Cruz is a vegan doctor and writer. She received the 2013 Award for Health Media from the Department of Health. She is the editor of The Manila Bulletin's Animal Scene Magazine. Get in touch if you want to invite her as a speaker!