Many people think memory issues are part of aging. But are your snoring and forgetfulness caused by age – or sleep apnea? Good news! Forgetfulness caused by sleep apnea can be reversed!
Many of us have had those moments. A friend tells us something, and within a week we’ve forgotten the conversation. Perhaps we’ve taken on a commitment but it completely slips our mind . . . and more and more, we find ourselves relying on our calendars to keep track of things. These signs of forgetfulness may indicate an underlying problem – and if you also snore, there’s a good chance the problem is sleep apnea. The great news is that a sleep test can determine whether sleep apnea is the cause. If it is, a simple treatment can eliminate your sleep apnea, improve your memory performance, and actually reverse brain decline!
What you will discover in this article
What is sleep apnea?
If you feel tired and/or sleepy all the time, or if you’ve been told you snore or stop breathing during your sleep, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) may be the cause. OSA can wreak havoc on your nights and your days and cause impairment in memory and decision-making, mood and alertness. Here’s what happens:
Here’s what happens:
- In obstructive sleep apnea the airway becomes blocked (obstructed) during sleep, which causes a pause in breathing.
- When we stop breathing our oxygen levels drop, which triggers the brain to tell us to wake up and breathe.
- However, we don’t wake up completely (these sleep interruptions are called “micro-arousals”).
- It’s these micro-arousals that disrupt our sleep architecture and cause us to wake up in the morning feeling as if we haven’t slept a wink.
How does sleep apnea cause snoring?
Snoring is the sound that is made when you try to breathe in while your airway is obstructed. Some people with sleep apnea may make a choking or gasping sound, while others experience silent breathing pauses as they try to inhale. The common factor is that oxygen isn’t getting through to the brain.
The surprising connection between sleep apnea and memory loss
It may seem logical that if you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you won’t feel alert the next day and will therefore be forgetful. But the impact of sleep apnea is much more serious than that.
According to a study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in 2017, people with severe, untreated sleep apnea had significant damage in multiple areas of the brain. That’s right – although study participants might have thought they had simple forgetfulness, their memory issues were actually the sign of brain damage!
So how does this brain damage show up? The symptoms include difficulties in remembering and making decisions, impaired mood, and diminished alertness. In fact, in an analysis of 42 studies comparing 2294 adults with untreated OSA and 1364 adults who were healthy,¹ the authors found people with sleep apnea had memory problems that included a reduced ability to remember things recently seen or heard and diminished long-term memory. This impairment was seen on many levels – including immediate recall, delayed recall, learning and recognition. Not surprisingly, these problems interfered with people’s daily lives.
Symptoms of memory loss caused by OSA include impairment of:
- Immediate recall (“What did my doctor just tell me?”)
- Delayed recall (“Who phoned this morning?”)
- Learning (“I just can’t get the hang of it!”)
- Recognition (“Right! I remember him – we met before!”)
How you can overcome brain damage and memory problems caused by sleep apnea
Now you know that memory problems aren’t necessarily a normal sign of aging – instead, they may be a red flag indicating sleep apnea. Fortunately, memory loss caused by OSA can actually be reversed by treating the apnea itself.
The first step is to get tested for sleep apnea. If you have OSA symptoms and feel that your sleep is not restful, it’s important to talk to your doctor about it. Apnée Santé offers simple, fast and effective home testing. You can also contact us for a free evaluation to see if sleep testing is right for you.
If the test shows you have sleep apnea, you’ll be prescribed a continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) device. CPAP is the most effective treatment for OSA. Thousands of Canadians use it every time they sleep. CPAP consists of a gentle stream of air that is directed through the airway during sleep, allowing the airway to remain open, and therefore preventing apnea. Over time, once the brain gets a regular supply of oxygen at night, it begins to repair itself.
Is there scientific proof that CPAP can reverse brain damage?
Yes! But you need to stick with the program. In the 2017 study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine,² only limited improvements were seen after three months of treatment with CPAP. However, after just one year, CPAP therapy led to an almost complete reversal of white matter (brain) abnormalities. According to the Academy, “Treatment also produced significant improvements in nearly all cognitive tests, mood, alertness and quality of life.” All of that without medication – and with the added benefit of getting a restful night’s sleep!
Are there other causes of reversible memory loss?
Sleep apnea isn’t the only cause of forgetfulness and confusion. According to the Mayo Clinic, other possible causes of reversible memory loss include:
- Medications. Certain medications or a combination of medications can cause forgetfulness or confusion.
- Minor head trauma or injury. A head injury from a fall or accident — even if you don’t lose consciousness — can cause memory problems.
- Emotional disorders. Stress, anxiety or depression can cause forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating and other problems that disrupt daily activities.
- Alcoholism. Chronic alcoholism can seriously impair mental abilities. Alcohol can also cause memory loss by interacting with medications.
- Vitamin B-12 deficiency. Vitamin B-12 helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells. A vitamin B-12 deficiency — common in older adults — can cause memory problems.
- Hypothyroidism. An underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) can result in forgetfulness and other thinking problems.
- Brain diseases. A tumor or infection in the brain can cause memory problems or other dementia-like symptoms.
So what’s the next step?
Make an appointment to see your doctor. Make sure to let them know if you feel tired when you wake up in the morning, or if others have told you that you snore. Here’s a checklist to review with your doctor for signs of sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea checklist to discuss with your doctor
Do you have any of these symptoms?
- Loud snoring
- Occasionally waking up during the night feeling that you’re choking or gasping
- Restless sleep
- Having a sore or dry throat in the morning
- Having a headache in the morning
- Sleepiness, low energy or fatigue during the day
- Feeling sleepy behind the wheel
- Weight gain
- Erectile dysfunction
- Forgetfulness, mood changes, and a decreased interest in sex
If I have sleep apnea, are there other benefits of CPAP treatment?
The benefits of CPAP treatment go far beyond reversing memory loss. According to Dr. Timothy Morgenthaler², President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (2017), “Obstructive sleep apnea is a destructive disease that can ruin your health and increase your risk of death,” creating health hazards that include high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Through treatment with CPAP, all of these hazards can be reduced. Now, that’s information worth remembering!
- Wallace A, Bucks RS. SLEEP 2013;36(2):203-220.
- Accessed at https://aasm.org/brain-damage-caused-by-severe-sleep-apnea-is-reversible/ on Aug. 7, 2019.