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Everyone knows that a bad night’s sleep can mess with your mind the next day. For the millions of Australians suffering from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), it’s a little more serious than that.Thanks to world-leading research from Sydney Uni, and more recently, Monash University and RMIT, the association between sleep apnea and dementias, including Alzheimer’s, has already been widely published. Each have identified that poor sleep, and the desaturated oxygen levels in the blood that it causes, is linked to an increased presence of a protein that forms on the artery walls of the brain. Now these proteins are present in all brains to some degree, but one of the functions of healthy, restorative sleep, is to ‘clear’ them out. Sustained impaired sleep (which is exactly what OSA is) means that they can build-up, clumping together and forming plaque (yep, think of that quasi-permanent formation that requires scraping at the dentist). This plaque then disrupts communication between nerve cells, impacting your thinking (cognitive ability and executive function) and information retention (memory).
There are ongoing detailed studies being done on the brain chemistry side of things, further exploring the already identified similarities in brain-scan (PET) imaging of those people with dementia, and those people who haven’t yet reported dementia symptoms, but have had a late life diagnosis of OSA (and therefore have a high likelihood of having been a long-term untreated sufferer).
The most recent study to be released looked at the problem from a different angle. The premise was a logical one. If condition X (sleep apnea) had been shown to be linked to the onset of condition Y (dementia), then would people who had been receiving treatment for condition X earlier in life be less likely to go on to develop the later-forming condition Y.
Specifically, would people (in the target older age groups) who were already being treated for OSA with CPAP therapy be less likely to develop symptoms of dementia? The answer from this study was a resounding yes.
Being large-scale in terms of scale and scope (it involved over 50,000 people and spanned more than 3 years to give a truly insightful views of impacts over time) it’s corroboration to the earlier research mentioned carries real clinical weight.
Apart from reinforcing the emerging links between sleep quality and dementia, it had the added benefit of highlighting the efficacy of the CPAP method for treating OSA.
The stark reality - and the reason not to hesitate to speak your health professional about conducting a sleep study – is that there is no cure for dementia. The evidence is mounting that early identification and treatment could prevent cognitive decline before it is too late.