Treating Sleep Apnea May Ward Off Memory Decline

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Breathing problems during sleep may be linked to early mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease, a new study suggests. But treating apnea with a continuous positive airway pressure machine can significantly delay the onset of cognitive problems.

In a group of 2,470 people, average age 73, researchers gathered information on the incidence of sleep apnea, a breathing disorder marked by interrupted breathing and snoring, and the incidence of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

After adjusting for a range of variables, they found that people with disordered breathing during sleep became cognitively impaired an average of about 10 years sooner than those without the disorder.

But compared with those whose sleep disorder was untreated, those using C.P.A.P. machines delayed the appearance of cognitive impairment by an average of 10 years — making their age of onset almost identical to those who had no sleep disorder at all.

The lead author, Dr. Ricardo S. Osorio, a research professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, said the analysis, published online in Neurology, is an observational study that does not prove cause and effect.

“But,” he added, “we need to increase the awareness that sleep disorders can increase the risk for cognitive impairment and possibly for Alzheimer’s. Whether treating sleep disorders truly slows the decline is still not known, but there is some evidence that it might.”