Study: Treating common sleep disorder may improve memory

9 Facts About Sleeping

What day is it? Where did I put my keys? Why did I walk in this room?

If your memory has been failing you, it could be caused by a sleep disorder.

A preliminary study released Sunday has found that obstructive sleep apnea is common in people with cognitive impairment. The study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 73rd annual meeting, being held virtually April 17-22.

Obstructive sleep apnea is when your breathing is repeatedly interrupted while sleeping. Research has shown people with this sleep disorder have an increased risk of developing cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Better sleep is beneficial to the brain and can improve cognitive skills. Yet in our study, we found that over half of the people with cognitive impairment had obstructive sleep apnea,” study author Mark I. Boulos said in a press release. “We also found that those with the sleep disorder had lower scores on thinking and memory tests. Fully understanding how obstructive sleep apnea affects this population is important because with treatment, there is potential to improve thinking and memory skills as well as overall quality of life.”

Boulos is with the University of Toronto in Canada and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

The study involved 67 people with an average age of 73 who had cognitive impairment, which includes memory and thinking problems that affect concentration, decision making and learning new things.

In addition to answering questionnaires on sleep, cognition and mood, the participants also took a 30-point cognitive assessment to determine their level of impairment. Participants also were given at-home sleep apnea tests to determine if they had obstructive sleep apnea.

That last test showed 52% of the participants had obstructive sleep apnea and that 60% of those people scored lower on the cognitive test than those who did not have sleep apnea. The severity of a person’s apnea also corresponded with the degree of impairment, the researchers found.

“People with cognitive impairment should be assessed for obstructive sleep apnea because it can be treated by using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that helps keep the airway open at night,” Boulos said. “However, not everyone who tries CPAP chooses to regularly use the therapy, and this may be a bigger challenge to people with thinking and memory problems. Future research should be directed toward determining ways to diagnose and manage the disease that are efficient and easy to use in people with cognitive impairment.”