Sleep apnea is linked to poorer brain health

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What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common but serious sleep disorder. It causes breathing to stop and stop over and over again during sleep. One of the most common forms is obstructive sleep apnea.

This happens when the throat muscles relax and block the airway. The affected person may snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night’s sleep.

The study and its aim

Recently, a group of scientists from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, conducted a study. Their goal was to find out whether there is a connection between sleep apnea and certain biomarkers in the brain.

These biomarkers have been linked to a higher risk of serious health problems. These include stroke, Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline.

What are biomarkers?

Biomarkers are measurable substances in the body that can indicate disease or infection.

In this study, researchers were interested in two types of biomarkers in the brain. Both are related to the health of the brain’s white matter.

What is white matter? It is the part of the brain that connects different regions together. This is vital for the proper functioning of the brain.

One biomarker is white matter hyperintensities, tiny lesions visible on brain scans. These occur more frequently with age or with uncontrolled high blood pressure.

The other biomarker is the integrity of the axons. Axons are nerve fibers that connect nerve cells to each other.

The study design and the results

The researchers studied 140 people with an average age of 73 years. All of them suffered from obstructive sleep apnea.

They underwent a brain scan and an overnight study in a sleep lab. None of them had cognitive problems at the start of the study, nor did they develop dementia at the end of the study.

The sleep study specifically focused on the time spent in deep sleep. This is also known as non-REM stage 3 or deep sleep. It is considered a good indicator of sleep quality.

The results were interesting. The researchers found that a decrease in the percentage of deep sleep was associated with an increase in white matter hyperintensities.

This was similar to the age effect of 2.3 years. A similar decline was also associated with diminished axonal integrity, similar to that seen at three years of age.

They also found that people with severe sleep apnea had more white matter hyperintensities than people with mild or moderate sleep apnea. They also had reduced axonal integrity in the brain.

What these results mean

These results suggest a link between severe sleep apnea, a reduction in deep sleep and changes in brain biomarkers.

Although the study doesn’t show that one causes the other, the link is significant. This could have important implications for the prevention and treatment of diseases such as stroke and Alzheimer’s.

The limitations of the study

Despite the significant results, the study had some limitations. The sleep study was a split-night design.

This means the participants’ sleep was monitored until they were diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, usually during the first few hours of sleep.

They then used a hyperbaric device for the rest of the night. This means that sleep measurements may not accurately reflect a full night’s sleep.

The way forward

Further research is needed to confirm these results and better understand the relationship. For example, does poor sleep quality or sleep apnea cause changes in these brain biomarkers?

Or is it the other way around? Could improving sleep quality or treating sleep apnea affect these biomarkers? These are all important questions that future studies should address.

If sleep is important to you, please read studies showing that common sleep and anxiety medications can be addictive, and that this herb can help you sleep better at night.

For more information on brain health, check out the recent studies on US-wide cooking oil that can alter genes in the brain and the results showing that this mental health drug can harm your brain health.

The study was published in Neurology.

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