Can Sleep Apnea Damage Your Brain?

Can Sleep Apnea Damage Your Brain?

A significant lack of sleep can be a real problem for seniors and elderly adults. A good night’s sleep seems to get harder to come by as we get older. Many studies have shown that losing out on sleep can lead to serious health problems and a steep increase in the potential for more health issues down the road. For instance, sleep problems have been linked to an increase in the risk of stroke.1 And according to the American Heart Association, irregular sleep can lead to serious heart issues.2

Now studies have found that a lack of solid sleep can actually lead to structural changes in the brain. A new study in the journal Neurology found that those who lose out on sleep as a result of sleep apnea actually show signs of damage in the brain that are reminiscent of the problems seen in those with dementia and other cognitive problems.3

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea can be a very serious condition. Someone with sleep apnea will stop breathing during sleep, usually for a period of up to 10 seconds. The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea, which is when the muscles that support your throat relax during sleep, thus narrowing your airway or blocking it altogether.

When this happens, your brain sends out an alarm that you aren’t breathing and your body reacts by rousing you from sleep – but not quite enough to fully wake you. This cycle can continue throughout the night.

Symptoms of sleep apnea can include loud snoring (especially when sleeping on your back), awakening with a dry mouth and headache, and gasping for air during sleep. You might find it difficult to stay asleep. Someone who is in the room with you as you sleep might notice that you simply stop breathing for a long period of time before your body reacts and you take in a deep, sudden, often loud breath.

Other symptoms you might feel during your waking hours include difficulty with concentration, irritability, and excessive sleepiness. The fatigue for those with severe sleep apnea can be crushing and interfere with daily activities.4

If you are suffering from a lack of sleep, no matter what the cause, a fall alert is an excellent idea. One of the first things you will feel as a result of lack of sleep is fatigue, and that tiredness can become quite pronounced after only a night or two. Fatigue can lead to a lack of concentration, problems with doing daily tasks, and a much higher fall risk.

A medical alert with fall detection can provide the peace of mind that if you do suffer from the serious impairments that sleep apnea and insomnia can bring, you can be rest assured help is just a button press away, day or night.

How Sleep Apnea Affects the Brain

To understand how sleep apnea affects the brain, you must first understand the basics of white matter. White matter is the part of the brain that forms connections between the brain cells and the nervous system. White matter is where your brain moves communicates with the other systems of your body.

White matter naturally changes as we age. During a brain scan of an elderly person, it’s not unusual to find small spots called hyperintensities in the white brain matter. This indicates that those parts of the brain have deteriorated over time.

So what does this have to do with sleep apnea?

As you might imagine, those who have sleep apnea often have trouble staying in deep sleep. This sleep, known as slow-wave sleep, can affect the white matter in the brain.

The participants in the new study were an average age of 72. None of them had dementia or cognitive impairment when the study began. About a third of them had severe apnea, a third had moderate sleep apnea, and another third were diagnosed with mild sleep apnea. They went through MRI scans of the brain at various points of the study to determine any changes.

The study on sleep apnea and the brain found that for every 10% decrease in the time a person stayed in deep sleep, there was an increase in the damaged spots in the brain. That 10% decrease had the same effect of adding 2.3 years to the age of a person’s brain.

More hyperintensities in white matter can result in the brain having difficulty with processing information, holding onto memories, and paying attention to important things. Depression, irritability, and anxiety are also closely tied to these changes in the brain.

It’s important to note that the changes in the brain were much more pronounced among those who have severe sleep apnea. Those with mild or moderate sleep apnea did show some brain changes but not enough to be considered a clinically significant finding.

But among those with severe apnea, the results were shocking. Those who stayed in slow-wave sleep for only 5% of the time showed marked injury to the brain over time; the abnormalities in the brain made it look almost five years older than someone who had more time in deep sleep.

Other Problems With Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can be a very serious condition that not only leads to the fatigue discussed earlier, but can also lead to higher blood pressure and a faster heart rate, as well as greater odds of obesity. Sleep problems can also exacerbate other health conditions, such as diabetes or the pain of arthritis. All of these issues are serious and some of them can easily lead to a medical emergency. In fact, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that severe sleep apnea can lead to a three-fold risk of dying from any cause.5

That’s another reason why an emergency alert system is such a good idea. These senior life-saving alerts can be used for any sort of emergency, including a heart attack or stroke. They can also be used in the event of an accident, such as a fall, a vehicle accident, or even a kitchen mishap. Press the panic button and connect with a trained professional within seconds, ready to assist you.

What Does White Matter Damage Mean?

It’s important to remember that issues with white matter can be a normal part of aging. In fact, those as young as 45 have shown brain changes on MRIs that are consistent with the white matter hyperintensities found in this story. The changes in white matter can come from stress, cardiovascular problems, and even from environmental pollutants.

But there are some things that can speed up the decline, such as having a stroke or other vascular event. A lack of sleep is another reason that the decline in white matter might speed up.

Deep sleep is restorative for the body. It’s when the body’s cells begin fixing damage and even consolidating memories to hold onto them for the long term. The immune system gets a boost. And the brain works to remove beta amyloid – a buildup of beta amyloid is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. So it makes sense that the less sleep you get, the more of a buildup you have, and the more damage that can cause over time.

Alleviating the Risk of Brain Damage

To reduce the risk of brain damage from sleep apnea, it is vital to get treatment for the condition. The only way to know for certain if you have sleep apnea is to do a sleep study. This usually means spending a night in a sleep clinic, hooked up to a variety of sensors that will report your brain waves, heart rate, breathing, and more. At the end of the study, your doctor can analyze the data and report the findings to you.

The fix will usually include the use of a continuous positive airway pressure machine. You use this machine while you sleep and it helps keep the airways open so that you can get into deep sleep and not worry about snoring or having interrupted rest.

Other ways you might be able to enjoy better sleep with sleep apnea include:

·        Quitting smoking. As you already know, smoking has an adverse effect on literally every cell and system of your body.

·        Lose weight and exercise. Sleep apnea is more common if you are overweight or obese.

·        Sleep on your side. Sleeping on your back makes it more likely the soft tissues of your throat will “collapse” as they relax, thus obstructing your breathing.

·        Try a decongestant. Some allergy medications and decongestants can help clear your airways. Ask your doctor if one of these is right for you.

·        Only drink alcohol in moderation. Alcohol has a depressant effect, which can lead to more dangerous sleep apnea. Don’t drink any alcohol in the hours before bed.

·        Avoid certain medications. Some medications designed to relax you, such as sleeping pills or anti-anxiety medications, can make it more difficult to awaken when you are dealing with sleep apnea.

As you are working with your doctor to alleviate sleep apnea and any other sleep disorders, stay safe with a medical alert system for seniors. This device can be worn on your body as a pendant, watch, or bracelet at all times, even when you are in the shower, and it can certainly be worn while you are sleeping! Press the button to get the help you need and be rest assured that someone has your back, around the clock, day or night.