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What Happens to Your Body When You Have Sleep Apnea

Managing an easily treatable but often undiagnosed sleep disorder can help prevent or slow cognitive decline.

"I'll sleep when I'm dead"—as a doctor and a CEO I hear this excuse from patients and fellow entrepreneurs way too often. What I tell them is that a good night's rest is more important than they realize. It doesn't only allow you to feel, look, and perform better but it can have life-changing effects on the quality of your future life. Impaired sleep has been associated with Alzheimer's disease, so if you spot and manage a sleep disorder early in your life you can help prevent or slow cognitive decline. It's important to understand how they connect since easy home treatments for the common sleep disorder can have a positive impact—and help prevent —the world's most common form of dementia. In other words, lack of sleep may not make you drop dead but certainly can make the rest of your life very difficult.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Alzheimer's disease and obstructive sleep apnea are scientifically intertwined. It's important to understand how they connect since easy home treatments for the common sleep disorder can have a positive impact—and help prevent—the world's most common form of dementia. Sleep apnea is a disease that disrupts breathing during sleep and causes the body to subconsciously wake as many as 100 times an hour. Sleep apnea is associated with loud snoring, earning it the infamous title of the "not-so-silent killer." The disease puts the afflicted at risk for obvious complications like extreme fatigue and poor oxygen levels. 

Who Suffers Sleep Apnea?

It affects an estimated 25 million Americans, yet an amazing 80 percent go undiagnosed and therefore untreated. They suffer unnecessarily, but not in silence. 

Apart from fatigue, there are other concerning repercussions to consider, like cognitive impairment and cardiovascular disease, which can increase the risk for Alzheimer's, a disease that afflicts more than 4.7 million Americans over age 65.

The Connection Between Sleep Apnea and a Higher Risk of Dementia

Studies have shown a connection between sleep apnea and a higher risk of developing dementia at an early age. In fact, one respected study found that sleep apnea sufferers have twice the risk of cognitive decline and/or Alzheimer's disease. Left untreated, the poor effects of sleep apnea on cognition, especially attention and executive function (like working memory, flexible thinking and self-control), can make dementia worse.

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Is Sleep Apnea Treatable?

There is good news, however. Sleep apnea is typically treatable, and it's easy to manage from home. A key tool in combating the disease is the CPAP machine, which is a nighttime mask that uses mild air pressure to keep airways open while you sleep. For those with both sleep apnea and Alzheimer's disease, CPAP therapy has shown to improve verbal learning, memory and executive functions. Even more promising, continued use of the machine can slow the cognitive decline of those with dementia.

An important takeaway: The negative effects of sleep apnea on cognition can make Alzheimer's disease worse. But through diagnoses and treatment of the sleep disorder, there are promising preventative effects on dementia. Simple healthcare changes can have a big impact on quality of life.

What to Do When You Have Sleep Apnea?

Now that we know the important link between sleep apnea and dementia, what's the next step in safeguarding your health? If you are a loud snorer – or live with someone who is – it's quite possible that sleep apnea is to blame. Seek the counsel of a sleep specialist for a diagnosis. This can be done with an overnight stay in a sleep clinic, or thanks to modern technology, organized from the comfort of your home. If needed, sleep apnea treatment can save your life, and vastly improve its quality, helping prevent and mitigate dementia. As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

About the Author: Dr. Daniel Rifkin is the founder and CEO of Ognomy. As a board-certified neurologist and sleep specialist, Dr. Rifkin has 23 years of experience in the practice of sleep medicine and is a published expert in his field.

Daniel Rifkin, MD
Dr. Daniel Rifkin is a board-certified neurologist, sleep specialist and the founder and CEO of Ognomy. Read more about Daniel
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