New dementia trigger revealed

A common sleep disorder has been identified as a possible cause of dementia, Australian researchers have revealed.

Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), which occurs when throat muscles relax during sleep, blocks airways and deprives the brain of oxygen.

Researchers at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre have found that oxygen deprivation causes changes in the temporal lobes of the brain, affects the brain’s ability to learn new information and could lead to dementia.

Sleep apnoea affects up to 75 per cent of Australians aged 65 and over.

“In our study, what we’ve showed is that oxygen desaturation during sleep apnoea is likely to be contributing to changes in memory and the changes in the brain,” said research lead Professor Sharon Naismith.

“This research shows that sleep-disordered breathing is a new risk factor of dementia.”

This is the first study to link sleep apnoea to dementia in older people. There may be no cure for dementia, but Prof. Naismith believes treating sleep apnoea could prevent cognitive decline before dementia sets in.

“We have many different ways to treat sleep apnoea, so unlike the other risk factors for dementia where we can’t always provide an optimal treatment, this is the only example where we actually know that if we can catch this early enough, we have a really good chance of preventing cognitive decline.

“We don’t have direct figures yet, but it’s certainly plausible that we could avert many cases of dementia by picking this up early and treating it.”

The study, published in the European Respiratory Journal, analysed 83 people between ages 51 and 88 who had concerns about their memory.

One participant began receiving treatment for sleep apnoea with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, and while there was no evidence it halted her cognitive decline, she believed it had changed her life for the better.

Prof. Naismith said the study proved that anybody who was worried about their memory should seek medical help, as early treatment of OSA could help prevent dementia later on.

“We’ve shown that these sleep problems are important, and we should be considering those when we’re looking into the different things that can be contributing to memory loss,” she said.

Researchers are now investigating whether CPAP treatment can prevent further cognitive decline and improve brain function for those with mild cognitive impairment.


Do you have sleep apnoea? Do you use a CPAP machine?

Related articles:
How to detect sleep apnoea
Dementia prevention starts when?
Poor sleep linked to Alzheimer’s

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.


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