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Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Sleep Apnea Linked to Dementia in Older Women

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Sleep-disordered breathing, a spectrum of problems that includes sleep apnea, affects 12 million or more Americans, causing fragmented sleep and excessive daytime fatigue. When someone suffers from sleep apnea, they typically snore very loudly, often sounding as if they are struggling for air. Suddenly, breathing halts for 10 seconds or more, frequently followed by a huge gasp as the individual struggles for air. These spells of no breathing are what we term “apnea.” This pattern usually repeats numerous times during the night. Not surprisingly, oxygen levels may drop precipitously during the episodes of apnea, depriving the brain and other vital organs of life-sustaining oxygen.

Although sleep apnea sounds absolutely dreadful, the patient is often completely oblivious, having no inkling of the struggle their body is enduring night after night. Usually it is the spouse or partner that brings the problem to light, since it is nearly impossible to get decent night’s sleep snuggled up next to someone who sounds as if they are taking their last breath all night long.

Sleep Apnea and Complications

Obesity is the most common cause of sleep apnea, but it may simply be due to the configuration of an individual’s anatomy. People with thick necks are especially vulnerable.

Sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and heart rhythm disturbances. Diabetes and obesity have also been linked to the disorder. A new study from the University of California, San Francisco, now suggests that over time, sleep apnea may even cause dementia.

Sleep Apnea Common in Elderly

Since sleep apnea is very common in the elderly, Dr. Kristine Yaffe and colleagues studied nearly 300 women with an average age of 82, using special equipment to monitor their sleep patterns at baseline. The women were followed over about five years, and had serial measurements of cognition and memory. Those women who had evidence of sleep apnea or other sleep-disordered breathing were 85 percent more likely to develop signs of dementia over time than were women who did not show evidence of breathing difficulties with sleep.

What You Can Do

Sleep apnea can usually be effectively treated with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine that is worn at night. While CPAP often requires commitment and perseverance, successful treatment can make a tremendous difference in quality of life, improving wakefulness, lowering blood pressure and even helping to reduce the urge to overeat. This is because people who don’t get sufficient sleep are often driven to choose unhealthy high caloric foods, since these foods provide an immediate energy boost that the apnea sufferer craves.

If you think you or someone you love might have sleep apnea, discuss it with your doctor. Testing is usually readily available, and in some cases can even be done in the privacy of your own home. Treatment can truly be life changing.

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Tags: Women and Heart Health , Weight and Heart Health , Heart Rhythm , Risk Factors for Heart Disease

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About the Author


MD, FACC

Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.

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