If you’re among the 60% of older adults for whom sleep apnea is an issue, here’s another reason to get it checked out: research has found this condition could increase the risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia. The study was published in JAMA and included 298 women participating in the Study of Osteoporotic Fractures. These women were an average of 82 years old and didn’t have dementia at the beginning of the current sub-study. Between 2002 and 2004, each woman had an overnight polysomnography—a test that measured body functions during sleep. Polysomnography can help identify sleep-disordered breathing, which is defined as 15 or more apneas (periods with no airflow) and hypopneas (periods with reduced airflow) per hour. The women also underwent periodic cognitive testing throughout the study and had a comprehensive cognitive assessment at the end of this sub-study, between 2006 and 2008. After adjusting for age, race, smoking status, BMI, and other health and medication factors that might contribute to cognitive impairment, researchers found that:
Women with sleep-disordered breathing were more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than women without sleep-disordered breathing: 44.8% versus 31.1%.
Although the percentage of sleep time in apnea or hypopnea was associated with risk of cognitive impairment, periods of wakefulness during sleep and overall sleep time were not.
Because frequent waking and shorter sleep were not associated with cognitive impairment, researchers posit that the lack of air getting to tissues in the body may explain the connection found in this study. If you have symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing, such as disruptive snoring, waking from shortness of breath, or pauses in your breathing during sleep, it’s important to see your healthcare practitioner. They can provide you with appropriate assessment and treatment that could help you breathe easier at night.