A new study published in Neurology has found that sleep apnea and a lack of deep sleep may be associated with poorer brain health, leading to increased risks for stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and cognitive decline. Sleep apnea is a chronic sleep disorder that can also increase other health risks, including cardiovascular disease and hypertension. The research involved looking at sleep factors and biomarkers of brain health and suggests that people with sleep apnea who spend less time in deep sleep are more likely to have brain biomarkers associated with a heightened risk of these conditions.
The study included 140 people with an average age of 73, all of whom had obstructive sleep apnea but did not have dementia before the study. Researchers found that for every 10-point decrease in deep sleep, white matter hyperintensities increased, which were the equivalent of being 2.3 years older. Further, each 10-point decrease in slow-wave sleep lowered axonal integrity equal to “similar to the effect of being three years older.” The more severe a person’s sleep apnea was, the higher volume of white matter hyperintensity and lower axonal integrity their brains had.
While the study cannot say whether this association causes the alterations or vice versa, diagnosis is critical. There are steps people can take to reduce sleep apnea risks, including lifestyle modifications such as weight loss, avoiding sleeping on your back, and treating nasal congestion. The mainstay treatment for sleep apnea is a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device, which delivers air pressure to keep airway passage open, reducing or eliminating snoring and sleep apnea risks.
Whether you have sleep apnea or not, experts share that sleep quality is important for overall well-being. Maintaining a regular sleep/wake schedule, avoiding electronics before bedtime, doing something uninteresting if unable to sleep within 20 minutes of laying down, avoiding naps close to bedtime, and maintaining an environment that promotes good sleep are all ways to improve sleep hygiene. Poor sleep quality is associated with worse brain health, but changes and discussions with your healthcare provider can help you course-correct.