Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Study suggests a link between sleep-disordered breathing and later cognitive decline

Sleep-disordered breathing affects as many as 60% of older adults, disrupting sleep. One of the most common problems is obstructive sleep apnea, in which the airway becomes blocked, causing a nearly suffocating lack of oxygen and buildup of carbon dioxide.

Although people with sleep apnea and other sleep-disordered breathing problems may develop short-term deficits in memory and thinking, it was not clear whether this had any long-term effect. Now a study in elderly women suggests that sleep-disordered breathing increases the likelihood of cognitive decline and dementia later on.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues recruited 298 older women (average age 82) who had normal thinking ability at the start of the study. The researchers monitored the women in a sleep lab overnight to collect data on oxygen intake during sleep, how often the women woke up, and how long they slept. Five years later, the researchers asked the same women to undergo neuropsychological tests to assess thinking ability and memory.

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