Sleep apnea may raise risk for dementia, according to study

Sleep apnea, a fairly common, treatable disorder that causes people to stop breathing momentarily while they sleep, may lead to cognitive impairment and even dementia, according to a new study of elderly women.

Women in the study with sleep apnea or other sleep disorders that affected their breathing were much more likely than those with normal sleep habits to develop cognition problems within five years, said researchers at UCSF and California Pacific Medical Center, who published the results in the Journal of the American Medical Association today.

Sleep disorders, and sleep apnea in particular, have long been associated with memory loss and dementia in particular, but the study is among the first to strongly suggest that the sleep problems may be a cause – not an effect – of the cognitive impairment.

“The extent of information has been limited before, because the studies were based on people with advanced dementia who, surprise, surprise, had sleep problems. It’s been hard to tell what’s the chicken and what’s the egg,” said Dr. Kristine Yaffe, a professor of psychiatry, neurology and epidemiology at UCSF, who led the study.

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