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Dementia is a catchall term describing memory loss, confusion and a progressive decline in thinking skills. These defects are driven by an accumulation of toxic protein in the brain, and preventing this build-up has been the main therapeutic target for the disease. New research has consolidated the assumption that health problems like sleep apnoea set the stage for cognitive decline.
A new study led by researchers at The University of Queensland has confirmed a link between obstructive sleep apnoea and an increased risk of developing dementia.
Professor Elizabeth Coulson, from the university’s Brain Institute and School of Biomedical Sciences, and her team found a causal relationship between low oxygen levels in the brain during sleep and neurodegenerative disease.
Professor Coulson noted: “We found sleep deprivation alone in mice caused only mild cognitive impairment.
“But we developed a novel way to induce sleep-disrupted breathing and found the mice displayed exacerbated pathological features of Alzheimer’s disease.
“It demonstrated that hypoxia – when the brain is deprived of oxygen – caused the same selective degeneration of neurones that characteristically die in dementia.”
It has yet to be determined, however, how varying degrees of hypoxia affect the risk of developing the disease.
Early trials on humans are currently underway to examine the correlation between oxygen deprivation and cognitive impairment.
Professor Coulson noted: “It’s estimated around 50 percent of elderly people have obstructive sleep apnoea when their throat muscles intermittently collapse and block the airway during sleep causing their breathing to stop and start.”
Unfortunately, many cases of sleep apnoea go undiagnosed and untreated because the most obvious warning signs occur during sleep.
These include frequent snoring, gasping for air, and silent breathing pauses that may last seconds to minutes.
However, other reliable telltale signs may emerge when “waking up”, according to WebMD.
The NHS describes sleep apnoea as a condition where breathing stops and starts intermittently during sleep.
Though the episodes of sleep apnoea are unlikely to cause serious harm, leaving the condition untreated can lead to more serious problems.
Professor Coulson pointed out that not everyone with obstructive sleep apnoea will go on to develop dementia.
“Some dementia clinicians have reported their patient’s memory has improved after their sleep problems were identified and treated,” added the researchER.
Currently, the most efficient treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea is a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP).
The technology works by keeping the airway open during sleep and allowing oxygen to reach the brain.
Based on the latest scientific findings, researchers believe the machinery may have the potential to reduce dementia risk for patients with sleep apnoea.
Treating sleep apnoea is not only important for dementia prevention.
It may also offset other complications like high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
This is because sleep apnoea causes blood oxygen levels to plummet as the body stops breathing, increasing pressure inside the blood vessels.
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