Researchers: Sleep Apnea Associated with White Matter Damage in Elderly

A number of recent studies have shown a link between sleep deprivation and neurological conditions. You can add a new study to the list.

Researchers with the Mayo Clinic conducted a study with 140 participants with an average age of 73, all of whom had clean bills of mental health (i.e. no dementia, Alzheimer’s or issues with thought processing), all of whom were suffering from sleep apnea ranging from mild to severe. Each participant spent the night in a sleep lab for observation and underwent brain scans to get a sense of the condition of the participant’s nerve fibers that compose the brain’s white matter.

What researchers found when comparing the scans and sleep patterns won’t be surprising to those familiar with the impact of sleep apnea, but they should be concerning to anyone suffering from sleep apnea, particularly those of advanced age. According to the study, subjects with the poorest overall sleep quality were the most likely to show signs of white matter damage.

In fact, they were able to quantify the levels of damage. Every 10-point drop in the percentage of deep sleep – which is when the body really repairs itself – was correlated to an increase in white matter damage associated with aging an additional 2.3 years.

Of course, the researchers were careful to point out that correlation isn’t causation. But with so many studies showing poor sleep correlated with a lengthy list of health problems ranging from heart disease to glaucoma to depression, it’s not hard to make an argument that addressing obstructive sleep apnea can give your overall health a big boost.

Source: Scans Suggest Sleep Apnea Could Be Harming Your Brain (USNews)

You’re a middle-aged man. And you’re in good shape. You’re not overweight, you stick to a healthy diet, you don’t smoke, your alcohol intake is minimal, and you work out regularly.

But you have obstructive sleep apnea.

Turns out, that one strike against you is enough to cause cognitive decline. A new study examined men aged 35 to 70 who had been diagnosed with mild to severe sleep apnea, but were otherwise healthy. A separate control group was also recruited, made up of men who were healthy and hadn’t been diagnosed with OSA. Both groups were given a battery of tests.

The study found that the group of men who suffered from untreated sleep apnea experienced reduced mental function in areas such as impulse control, judgment and recognizing the feelings of others. The study also showed that the men with obstructive sleep apnea had reduced attention spans, executive functioning and short-term visual recognition memory.

Possibly worst of all? The study also demonstrated that those cognitive deficits rose with increasing severity. In other words, the worse the sleep apnea, the more extreme the cognitive decline.

As we’ve shared in other blog posts, untreated sleep apnea is strongly correlated with a number of other conditions, including heart disease, stroke and glaucoma, alongside a range of psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. But it was long believed that the cognitive decline associated with sleep apnea was due to one of those related conditions, such as type 2 diabetes. But according to this study, that’s just not the case. Sleep apnea is enough to cause cognitive decline in otherwise healthy individuals – there aren’t any other associated conditions to blame.

If you think you’ve developed obstructive sleep apnea, it’s time to stop suffering. Contact us today for an at-home sleep study.


We’ve shared the dire consequences – from glaucoma to tinnitus to heart disease – that can result from too little sleep. But this one has even us a little shocked.

In a recent study out of a university in Italy, researchers studied four groups of mice. The first group was allowed to sleep as long as it wanted with no interruptions. The second group was woken up periodically, while group three was forced to stay awake for an extra eight hours. The fourth group got it bad: in an effort to mimic chronic sleep deprivation, they were deprived of sleep for five straight days.

The damage done, the researchers then studied two types of cells that play key roles in overall neurological housekeeping: astrocytes (which prune old synapses in the brain to rewire it for ongoing use) and microglial cells (think of them as the brain’s garbagemen, clearing the brain of damaged cells and debris).

What researchers discovered was revealing and even a bit disturbing. Astrocytes were active in 6% of the synapses of the well-rested mice, versus nearly 14% of those in the sleep-deprived mice. And microglial cells were active only in the brains of the sleep-deprived mice. Meaning that the sleep-deprived mice had waste in their brains that needed to be cleared out.

To put it another way: the sleep-deprived mice experienced more damage to the brain synapses than the well-rested mice. And the sleep-deprived mice had brain cell damage that the well-rested mice didn’t experience at all.

What does this mean? Chronic sleep deprivation can cause the brain to have to rewire itself more aggressively to continue to function, and can cause it to break down in ways that it doesn’t if you’re getting sufficient rest. In simple terms: if you’re suffering from something like chronic sleep apnea, your brain could be eating itself.

If you think you’re suffering from chronic OSA, please contact us for an at-home sleep study.


If You Don’t Get Enough Sleep, Your Brain Literally Eats Itself (
The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation (New Scientist)