Harvard Health Letter

Sleep breathing problems may hasten decline in thinking skills

As we reported in March, sleep apnea and other sleep breathing problems are associated with the development of dementia. Now a study published online April 15, 2015, by Neurology finds that sleep breathing problems are associated with an earlier onset of the decline in thinking skills.

Researchers analyzed the medical histories of about 2,500 people ages 55 to 90 and found that people with sleep breathing problems were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (a decline in thinking skills) an average of 10 years earlier than people who didn't have those problems. The encouraging news: people who treated their sleep breathing problems with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment about 10 years later than people whose problems were not treated. The study doesn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship, but it does offer hope. "CPAP improves the quality of sleep in people with sleep-disordered breathing. Healthy sleep is an important time for our brains to accomplish critical 'housekeeping' tasks. One of these tasks is clearing beta-amyloid, one of the main proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease," says Dr. Scott McGinnis, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.

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