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Sleep Apnea and Memory Loss: 3 Facts You Should Know

By Kyle Kirkland
Sleep apnea doesn’t just make you tired. It can also affect how your brain functions and interfere with your memory.

Sleep apnea prevents you from getting the sleep that your body needs. This lack of sleep can lead to negative effects on your physical, mental, and cognitive health. Here are three key facts you need to know about sleep apnea and memory loss. 

Lowered blood oxygen during sleep can have consequences for your memory.

There are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea, in which your airway is physically blocked by improperly relaxed muscles in your throat, causing abnormal breathing during sleep
  • Central sleep apnea, in which there’s a problem with the brain signals that communicate with the muscles controlling breathing during sleep
  • Mixed sleep apnea, which involves both of the above forms of the disorder

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea, and when your sleep is interrupted, your mind struggles.

“Obstructive sleep apnea can lead to serious cognitive issues related to memory loss,” Kent Smith, M.D., President of the American Sleep and Breathing Academy and Founder of Sleep Dallas, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

“During sleep, the brain consolidates and categorizes a day’s events and commits them to short or long-term memory. During a sleep apnea ‘episode’, a person actually stops breathing and the flow of oxygen to the brain is reduced or completely cut off multiple times during the night,” Smith says.

“This, combined with chronic fatigue, can cause damage to the brain’s fiber pathways and structural alterations that regulate mood, memory, and blood pressure,” Smith explains. 

Sleep-disordered breathing is associated with earlier cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients.

Researchers at the American Academy of Neurology recently designed a study in order to examine whether continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment—which raises the air pressure in your throat while you sleep so you can breathe normally—had any effect on the onset of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients. 

The Centers for Disease Control reports that subjective cognitive decline is the self-reported experience of deteriorating brain function in the form of increased confusion or memory loss. 

The Academy’s findings were published in a 2015 issue of the journal Neurology. The study concluded that the presence of sleep-disordered breathing, such as that which occurs in sleep apnea, was indeed associated with an earlier onset of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients. 

Treating sleep apnea may reverse the brain damage it caused.

A 2014 study published in the journal Sleep found that treating sleep apnea can also help treat brain damage resulting from the condition.

“The study showed if a patient sticks with a treatment program, brain damage (including cognitive damage) caused by severe obstructive sleep apnea can be reversed by continuous positive airway pressure therapy,” Smith says. 

The study focused on the white matter of the brain, which is commonly called the brain’s “superhighway” because its composition allows nerves to rapidly communicate. 

“According to the study, three months of CPAP machine usage resulted in only limited improvements to damaged brain structures. However, 12 months of use led to an almost complete reversal of white matter abnormalities,” Smith says. 

Think you may have sleep apnea? Start your journey to more restful sleep TODAY.

Untreated sleep disorders can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. Sleep testing can help you get the answers you need to receive the treatment you deserve. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.