Severe sleep apnea could harm future brain health, study finds

Severe sleep apnea may jeopardize your future brain health, a study published in the journal Neurology found.
Severe sleep apnea may jeopardize your future brain health, a study published in the journal Neurology found. | Adobe.com

Severe sleep apnea may jeopardize your future brain health, a study published in the journal Neurology said on Wednesday.

Reporting on the study, medical news outlet Healthline said researchers found that those with severe sleep apnea have a higher risk of developing brain biomarkers linked to Alzheimer’s, cognitive decline and an increased risk of strokes.

“These biomarkers are sensitive signs of early cerebrovascular disease,” said study coauthor Dr. Diego Z. Carvalho of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in a media release published by News Medical.

Carvalho told News Medical that the white matter in the brain was damaged due to a lack of quality deep sleep called slow-wave sleep.

He said, “Finding that severe sleep apnea and a reduction in slow-wave sleep are associated with these biomarkers is important since there is no treatment for these changes in the brain, so we need to find ways to prevent them from happening or getting worse.”

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Study details

CNN said researchers from the Mayo Clinic observed 140 people who had sleep apnea, with the average age being 72 years old.

Approximately 34% of participants had mild sleep apnea, 32% had moderate and 34% had severe sleep apnea, according to Healthline.

“All were without dementia and cognitively unimpaired during testing and had undergone one of two types of magnetic resonance imaging scans,” CNN said.

While observing the brain, the researchers found that people with severe sleep apnea had more damage to the white matter in the brain than those who had more slow-wave sleep.

“For every 10% decrease in time spent in deep sleep, there was an increase of white matter hyperintensities in the brain similar to the effect of being 2.3 years older,” Carvalho told News Medical.

This means “a person whose slow-wave sleep decreased by 20 percentage points had the white matter hyperintensity amounts of a person 4.6 years older,” Healthline said.

CNN said white matter intensities can affect the brain’s ability to process information, focus and remember, and lower levels of white matter have also been connected to mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Carvalho said the association with sleep apnea was only found in severe cases, suggesting mild to moderate cases might not significantly affect white matter in the brain, per CNN.

Researchers cannot say whether the association between sleep disturbances and brain changes causes the alterations or vice versa, Healthline reported.

How do I treat sleep apnea?

Depending on the case, treatments for sleep apnea can vary, from lifestyle changes like losing weight and quitting smoking to nasal surgery, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute lists additional lifestyle changes meant to treat sleep apnea, including regular physical activity, healthy and consistent sleep schedule and limiting alcohol intake.

Breathing devices, such as a CPAP machine, are available to help with breathing but may cause side effects like dry eyes and congestion, the website said.