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)

As we’ve detailed in prior posts, obstructive sleep apnea poses a number of dire secondary health effects, up to and including a reduced life expectancy. Now a new study underscores the serious impact that untreated sleep apnea can have on older Americans.

The University of Florida College of Medicine conducted a study of more than 9,000 adults aged 50 and above, which looked at a range of factors, including the presence of OSA, any treatment received, and a range of demographic data, including socioeconomic status. (For you statistics junkies, please note that this is a robust sample size, and quite sufficient to generalize across wider populations.

The results of the study are concerning, to say the very least. More than 76% of the individuals included in the survey were rated as possibly having undiagnosed sleep apnea. That’s three out of every four individuals in the study. Separately, more than 10% of those in the study had been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, but were not receiving treatment.

The potential dangers of this are profound, particularly for older Americans. As noted, untreated sleep apnea can lead to a range of serious side effects, including:

If you’re playing along at home, you’ll notice that these conditions are already a problem for people in their 50s and beyond, meaning that untreated sleep apnea puts them at greater risk.

Why is sleep apnea reaching epidemic proportions among these older cohorts? The study speculates somewhat, but one reason that was highlighted is the lack of public awareness. Simply put, middle-aged folks are unaware of the dangers of untreated sleep apnea. But one other reason: the cost involved. In many cases, simply getting diagnosed can be a challenge.

This is one reason that Dr. Krish offers an at-home sleep study. It’s vastly cheaper than a conventional clinic-based sleep study, and it’s way more convenient.

Source: UF College of Medicine study finds sleep apnea in older adults needs more attention (UF Health press release)