Long-term Effects of Sleep Apnea

 In Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea affects more than just our ability to get a good night’s rest. It can cause debilitating and even deadly health problems. In particular, sleep studies have proven time and time again the long-term effects of sleep apnea on the brain.

The Mayo Clinic describes sleep apnea as “a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.”

Not every snorer has sleep apnea. Those who snore loudly and are told they stop breathing multiple times during the night may have it, especially if and when they still feel sleepy despite what they experience as a full night’s sleep.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (when throat muscles relax)
  • Central sleep apnea (according to the Mayo, this “occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing”)
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome (a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea)

Sleep Apnea’s Effect on the Brain

We’re learning more every day about the long-term effects of sleep apnea on the brain. A 2019 study by the Mayo found that “people who stop breathing during sleep may have higher accumulations of the toxic protein tau, a biological hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, in part of the brain that manages memory, navigation, and perception of time.” While it’s unclear what precisely is causing this association, there seem to be ample reasons for concern.

A 2016 UCLA study reported that people who suffer from sleep apnea had “significant changes” in the levels of the neurotransmitters glutamate (“unusually high levels”) and decreased levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. According to a summary of the findings, these neurotransmitters are “in a brain region called the insula.” This region “integrates signals from higher brain regions to regulate emotion, thinking and physical functions such as blood pressure and perspiration.”

Brain Function

Long-term effects of sleep apnea also include memory impairment. At least one study apparently showed that sleep apnea impairs “the brain’s capacity to either encode or consolidate certain types of life memories, which makes it hard for people to recall details from the past.”

Previous studies, even some as far back as 2008, were sounding the alarm about the ways in which sleep apnea affects not just brain function but the brain white matter and gray matter itself.

“It looks to be that the brain is actually injured, and the particular brain structure that’s damaged is one of several that transfer recent memories into long-term memories,” said Ronald Harper, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at UCLA.

Thus, in addition to the other potential health problems associated with sleep apnea, including strokes and heart attacks, the long-term effects of sleep apnea on the brain are also quite worrisome.

Sleep deprivation affects more than just sleep quality. It affects whether or not the brain is working properly for people with sleep apnea. The Mayo, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and other sleep researchers in the studies we’ve mentioned all seem to agree: Treating obstructive sleep apnea is critical to avoid memory loss and other problems with brain function.

If you’ve tried CPAP therapy (continuous positive airway pressure) and are unsatisfied, contact New Image Dentistry to discuss additional options.

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