MINNEAPOLIS — A recent study suggests that individuals who snore and don’t experience the deep sleep might face a decline in their brain health. Those with sleep apnea, a condition that leads to loud snoring and obstructed breathing, have a higher chance of exhibiting signs of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, or overall cognitive decline. Researchers working with the American Academy of Neurology say symptoms of this disorder also include breathing interruptions, making choking and gasping sounds, and restlessness during sleep.
For every 10 percent decrease in the amount of deep sleep, the brain ages as if it’s 2.3 years older. According to a separate study conducted by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris-Cité, France, one in five individuals (20.2%) suffer from sleep apnea, yet only 3.5 percent are receiving treatment.
The brain’s health is measurable through biomarkers in its white matter, crucial for connecting different parts of the brain. One such marker is tiny lesions, known as white matter hyperintensities, visible on brain scans. These become more prevalent with age or uncontrolled high blood pressure.
“These biomarkers are sensitive indicators of early cerebrovascular disease. Finding that severe sleep apnea and a reduction in slow-wave sleep are associated with these biomarkers is important since there is no treatment for these changes in the brain, so we need to find ways to prevent them from happening or getting worse,” says Dr. Diego Carvalho from the Mayo Clinic in a media release.
The study involved 140 participants with obstructive sleep apnea, with an average age of 73. Each participant underwent a brain scan and an overnight stay in a sleep laboratory. None of the participants had cognitive issues at the start of the study or dementia by the end.
“More research is required to ascertain if sleep issues affect these brain biomarkers or if it’s the other way around. We also need to explore whether improving sleep quality or treating sleep apnea can affect the trajectory of these biomarkers,” adds Dr. Carvalho.
The sleep study investigated how long people spent in deep sleep, thought to be one of the best indicators of sleep quality. The experts discovered that for every 10 percent decrease in deep sleep, the white matter hyperintensities increased, equivalent to aging 2.3 years. Participants with severe sleep apnea had more white matter hyperintensities than those with mild or moderate conditions and demonstrated a decrease in the integrity of their brain’s axons that connect nerve cells.
“We know that Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is a significant health risk. But if patients are diagnosed with this condition, they can receive treatments and advice to mitigate the risks, adds Dr. Pauline Balagny from the University of Paris-Cité, whose research is published in the journal ERJ Open Research. “Our study implies that OSA is common, but the majority of those affected are unaware they have the condition.”
This study is published in the journal Neurology.
Reaching deep sleep can protect the brain from memory loss
Another study is also reinforcing the importance of getting good quality sleep as we age. Researchers from the University of California-Berkeley find that deep sleep can protect older adults from Alzheimer’s-related memory loss.
Researchers found that participants with high amounts of amyloid deposits in their brain that slept deeply performed better on the memory test than those with the same levels of deposits who slept worse.
“Think of deep sleep almost like a life raft that keeps memory afloat, rather than memory getting dragged down by the weight of Alzheimer’s disease pathology,” says UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience Matthew Walker. “It now seems that deep NREM sleep may be a new, missing piece in the explanatory puzzle of cognitive reserve. This is especially exciting because we can do something about it. There are ways we can improve sleep, even in older adults.”
South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.