“When was I supposed to be there?” “What did she say I should bring?” “Where did I put my keys?”

If you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea (or just noticed that you’re waking up a lot during the night and not feeling refreshed after sleep), you may feel like you’re asking these types of questions more frequently.

This can cause you to question whether there’s a connection between these lapses of memory and sleep apnea. You may also want to know if you should worry about more serious forms of memory loss, including Alzheimer’s Disease.

It’s important to discuss any medical concerns with your healthcare professional. This article offers information about sleep apnea and memory loss to help you prepare for this conversation.

Sleep apnea is a fairly common condition where an individual’s breathing pauses repeatedly while they sleep. This can cause the individual to wake frequently and not feel fully rested even after “sleeping” for a long time.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can be divided into two categories based on its cause: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. While many individuals experience only one type of sleep apnea, some experience a combination of both.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

This is the most common type of sleep apnea and occurs when the airway becomes blocked or collapses while an individual is trying to sleep. Obesity, large tonsils, and changes in hormone levels can all increase the chance of OSA.

Central sleep apnea (CSA)

A different type of sleep apnea occurs when the brain does not send the signals needed to breathe. CSA can be caused by various health conditions that affect the brain’s control over the airway and chest muscles. Snoring or gasping in your sleep can be a sign of sleep apnea, especially if you’re experiencing daytime sleepiness or other signs of poor sleep.

If you believe that you have sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend a sleep evaluation.

Sleep is an important time to consolidate memories. Those with untreated OSA may find it hard to recall details from the past because their brain does not have sufficient time to consolidate or encode certain types of life memories with more frequent waking in the night.

Additionally, a lack of sleep can leave you feeling groggy or foggy. This can make it hard to think clearly or solve problems throughout the day.

Researchers analyzing the results of 42 studies found that individuals with untreated OSA were significantly impaired compared to others in their verbal episodic memory and visuospatial episodic memory.

Because people with untreated OSA may have difficulty recalling specific details about their lives, it can lead to depression. More research beyond this older 2011 study is needed to determine the extent to which treatment of sleep apnea can restore memories that have been lost.

Poor sleep can lead to cognitive decline and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Studies have shown:

  • People who get less REM sleep are at an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
  • Those with sleep-disordered breathing (which includes sleep apnea) are 26% more likely to develop cognitive impairment than those without sleep-disordered breathing.
  • Around 40% of dementia cases are believed to be attributable to potentially modifiable risk factors, which include untreated OSA.

Because there are treatment options available to help improve sleep apnea, the increased risk it poses for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s may be modifiable. More research into the effect sleep apnea treatment has on the risk of cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s is still needed though.

If you have sleep apnea, you may wish to talk with your doctor about signs of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s to watch out for, as early detection can be beneficial for treatment.

Your doctor may suggest a variety of lifestyle changes if you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea. These can include:

  • getting regular physical activity
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • avoiding/quitting smoking
  • limiting alcohol
  • sleeping on your side instead of on your back to help keep the airway open

While these lifestyle changes may not resolve your sleep apnea completely, they can help to decrease the severity of your sleep apnea and improve the quality of your sleep.

Your doctor may also suggest a breathing device to help provide air pressure to keep the airway open while you sleep. Some of the more common breathing devices include:

Alternatively, oral devices like mandibular repositioning mouthpieces and tongue retaining devices may be suggested to keep the airway open while you sleep. These are custom fitted and worn at night to prevent the jaw and tongue from blocking the upper airway.

Your doctor may also suggest orofacial therapy, which includes exercises to improve the position of your tongue and strengthens the muscles responsible for controlling the lips, tongue, upper airway, and face.

In some cases, surgery may be useful to correct a physical obstruction in the throat, but this is a less common treatment choice.

Sleep apnea can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep and remembering everything you need to during your awake hours. (When were you supposed to meet up with that friend again?)

However, there are a variety of treatment options available for those with sleep apnea including breathing devices, lifestyle changes, and even, in some cases, surgery. These can assist you in getting a better night’s sleep and may help prevent memory issues.

You’ll want to talk with your doctor or medical care team if you believe you have sleep apnea. They can help you figure out which (if any) treatments are appropriate for you.