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Can Obstructive Sleep Apnea Cause Memory Loss?

dr-elamir-aviv-clinics by Mohammed Elamir, MD , Physician
December 21, 2022
a couple sleeping together in bed

Yes, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can cause memory loss if left untreated.

OSA is a breathing disorder characterized by the blockage of a part or all of the upper airway that occurs during sleep. This blockage intermittently deprives the brain of oxygen (referred to as hypoxia)

Over time, the lapses in breathing during slumber can lead to excessive daytime drowsiness and impaired cognitive functioning. 

If left untreated, studies show the disorder affects brain structure and function, potentially leading to: 

  • Strokes
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Mild cognitive impairment
  • Alzheimer’s Disease

“The harmful effect of disturbed sleep on brain health is particularly important for older adults presenting obstructive sleep apnea (OSA),” according to a report in the American Thoracic Society’s Family of Journals.

OSA is common in adults aged 65 and older. However, because physicians often fail to see the causal connection between OSA and cognitive impairment, up to 90% of patients with OSA remain undiagnosed. Too often, cognitive decline has already begun when OSA is identified. 

Fortunately, treating OSA can improve a patient’s quality of life and prevent further neurodegenerative decline. Learn more on how sleep apnea can cause memory loss and what you can do to regain control of your cognitive health. 

How Does OSA Impact the Brain? 

OSA episodes can occur many times throughout the night, and each episode interrupts the flow of oxygen to the body and brain. This results in damage to every cell in the body.

The repeated lapse in breathing also prohibits a good night’s rest and prevents the brain from experiencing the critical REM sleep it needs to remodel, heal, and remove toxic waste.

If untreated, OSA can lead to memory problems. The pauses in breathing inhibit your brain from getting the oxygen it needs to function at peak levels. Over time, the lack of oxygen can cause memory loss, challenges concentrating, and moodiness. 

Research further explains that a brain compromised by the effects of sleep apnea can lead to cognitive decline and the buildup of plaque—a biomarker of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Proper oxygen-enriched blood flow in and out of the brain is vital to preventing the buildup of plaque.

What Factors Contribute to OSA? 

Several factors contribute to the development of OSA. They include:

  • Neck circumferenceSomeone who suffers from obesity and has a large neck circumference may have a more difficult time breathing properly when sleeping.
  • A large uvulaIf the small bulb of flesh that hangs between the tonsils in the back of the throat is larger than normal, it can cause breathing issues while sleeping.
  • High, arched and narrow hard palate or a low-extending soft palateEither scenario can cause sleeping issues, especially if the structures inside the mouth are crowded.
  • Obstructed nasal passagesAdenoids can hinder proper breathing, which can result in OSA.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of OSA?

Curtailing further cognitive decline is essential if you suspect you may be experiencing OSA

Obstructive sleep apnea side effects and symptoms include: 

  • Snoring loudly and frequentlyOften, people do not realize they snore. But if you notice you awaken frequently and suddenly throughout the night, this may be because your loud, excessive snoring is disrupting your sleep. A bed partner can attest to the type of snoring, which could be helpful when meeting with a physician. 
  • Experiencing excessive daytime sleepinessSomeone with OSA may wake up feeling tired, even after a full night of sleep. Daytime drowsiness associated with OSA may emerge while reading, watching TV, or driving. OSA sufferers might also report having brain fog or issues with memory throughout the day.
  • Waking suddenly gasping for airPeople with OSA are often jolted awake when they stop breathing, because the airway has narrowed or collapsed. They may also wake with a dry mouth because they’ve been breathing through their mouth to draw in more oxygen.

To confirm an obstructive sleep apnea diagnosis, you may need to partake in a home sleep study that involves using an apparatus that will measure your oxygen level, heart rate, and respiration while you sleep, either in your home or at a sleep clinic.

If a home study detects possible obstructive sleep apnea, the next step may be a full study in a sleep lab. The session is more rigorous, as technicians will need to gather additional data to help determine the best course of treatment.

What Are the Treatment Options for OSA? 

Treatment of obstructive sleep apnea includes nonsurgical and surgical approaches. Nonsurgical methods include:

  • Weight lossLosing weight, especially around the neck, can significantly improve OSA symptoms. A sleeping apparatus, like a nasal mask, can be the next best remedy, especially for those who might struggle to lose the extra weight. 
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). This method uses a mask-style apparatus that prevents partial or complete collapse of the airways while sleeping. It forces compressed air into those compromised areas to prevent obstruction. While CPAP is an effective approach, it can take a few weeks for patients to become accustomed to the mechanics of the machine and mask.
  • Oral appliances—Those averse to machines may prefer oral appliances. Oral appliances have mouthpieces crafted to open your airways by either bringing your jaw forward or holding your tongue in place. Frequently, a dentist will customize the appliance to fit your mouth, but over-the-counter options are also available. 
  • Surgical proceduresProcedures can be performed using conventional or laser techniques to alter or remove any physical obstructions like adenoids or enlarged tonsils. Other surgical methods may include altering the jawbones, soft tissue, or nose. 
  • Proprietary combination of therapies—If you’ve dealt with sleep apnea and are experiencing memory issues or brain fog, there’s still time. The Aviv Medical Program treats these symptoms by restoring the oxygen flow to your brain to treat your damaged tissue 

The Aviv Medical Program uses a proprietary combination of the following to improve mental and physical performance:

  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) 
  • Cognitive and physical training
  • Nutrition coaching
  • Comprehensive assessments and analysis

Why Is It Important to Treat OSA?

Obstructive sleep apnea can negatively affect physical and psychological functioning, as well as quality of life. Left untreated, sufferers can experience deficits in memory, attention, and cognitive function. 

The long-term effects can be debilitating. Studies have shown untreated OSA can lead to decreased brain activation, diminished memory recall, and impaired learning.

The good news is that OSA treatment can be life-changing and effective at improving symptoms, curtailing further neurodegeneration, and delaying cognitive impairment.

The Bottom Line

Obstructive sleep apnea can result in cognitive decline and other health issues. If untreated, symptoms will worsen with age

Based on over a decade of research and development, the Aviv Medical Program intensive treatment protocol is available in the United States only at Aviv Clinics in The Villages, Florida.

If you would like more tips on sound sleep and a healthy brain, you can read our article on sleep here.

If you suspect you are experiencing OSA, you can get help to improve—and even resolvesymptoms like daytime sleepiness, brain fog, and memory lapses. Contact Aviv Clinics today.

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