SUNDAY, May 19 (HealthDay News) -- Sleep apnea, the condition
that robs sufferers of deep sleep by endlessly and subconsciously
waking them up, becomes more common as people age. Now, a small new
study raises the possibility that it may somehow cause -- or be
caused by -- Alzheimer's disease.
Don't worry just yet if you have sleep apnea. The research is
preliminary, and it's possible that there may be no connection
between the two conditions. Still, scientists found that slimmer
seniors with signs of disrupted breathing during sleep were more
likely to have indicators of developing Alzheimer's disease.
"This is just a correlation," said study lead author Dr. Ricardo Osorio, a research assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine, in New York City. But, he said, the prospect of a connection deserves further study since there may indeed be a link between sleep, aging and memory, which severely declines in Alzheimer's patients.
"It's clear that sleep is important for memory, and sleep changes as you get older," he said. "Disrupted breathing during sleep also increases with aging."
People who have sleep apnea often don't know it. They have
trouble staying in deep sleep because their throats close as they
slumber, temporarily blocking their airways and requiring them to
subconsciously wake up to get air. Some sleep apnea sufferers may
awaken 35 or more times an hour.
In the new study, researchers tested the sleep of 68 seniors in
their 60s, 70s and 80s. Their average age was 71.
A quarter of them had symptoms of moderate to severe breathing
problems during sleep (a sign that they may have sleep apnea), and
about 49 percent had mild breathing problems. But none of them
complained of sleepiness or concentration problems, which sleep
apnea can cause, Osorio said.
The researchers discovered that thinner participants with
breathing problems during sleep were more likely to have
"biomarkers" -- biological signs -- of an increased likelihood of
developing Alzheimer's. These signs indicate brain damage and
decreased use of glucose (the sugar that blood transports) in the
brain, Osorio said.
"We do not know if these people will develop Alzheimer's in the future, and we don't know how much risk they have," he said. "In the future, we might able to predict the risk."
Although excess weight raises the risk of sleep apnea, the obese
participants with breathing problems didn't appear to have as much
of an extra risk of Alzheimer's. There's another twist, Osorio
said: For reasons that are unclear, being slightly overweight
seemed to actually
lowerthe risk of Alzheimer's.
So what's going on? The study doesn't give hints about which
came first -- Alzheimer's or sleep breathing problems -- or whether
something else, such as aging, might be causing both.
Another expert said it's clear that thinking skills may be
impaired in patients with sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
"[But] the mechanisms of this are not well understood," said Dr.
Brad Dickerson, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard
Medical School in Boston.
As for the study, Dickerson said its findings are intriguing.
However, he said, "these findings are very preliminary, and need to
be further studied ... in order to make sure they are consistent
and to better understand their implications."
The next step, Osorio said, is to launch a study of older people
with sleep breathing problems and monitor them over time to see if
they're less likely to develop Alzheimer's after getting treatment
to improve their breathing.
The study is scheduled to be presented Sunday at an American
Thoracic Society conference in Philadelphia. Findings presented at
medical meetings typically are considered preliminary until
published in a peer-reviewed journal.
For more about
Alzheimer's disease, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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