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sleep apnea and alzheimer's

Understanding Sleep Apnea and Alzheimer’s Disease

June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month

Did you know that people who have sleep apnea in mid-life are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as they get older? If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, you’re probably aware that there is a connection. However, you might not understand why.

With Alzheimer’s Awareness & Brain Awareness Month in June, it’s a good time to discuss this common issue, why it occurs, and ways caregivers can help.

The Link Between Sleep Apnea and Alzheimer’s Disease 

Medical experts have known for a long time that there is a strong connection between Alzheimer’s and one specific type of sleep apnea called obstructive sleep apnea. This is the most diagnosed of the three types, and it occurs when the throat muscles relax and are unable to hold the airways open.

In the past, research has shown that sleep apnea impacts the brain, causing damage that can potentially lead to cognitive impairment. Specifically, it triggers atrophy in the brain’s hippocampus, the area critical for memory. Now, new research has made even more progress in uncovering the connection between sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s.

In the Alzheimer’s brain, abnormal levels of a naturally occurring protein – called beta-amyloid 42 – clump together to form plaques. These collect and build up between nerve cells and disrupt their function.

In a new study published in the medical journal, Sleep, researchers found that the more severe a person’s obstructive sleep apnea, the more likely they are to have increased amounts of these plaques in the hippocampus. This is because sleep deficiency hinders the brain’s ability to clear out the protein.

In addition, the research also found that episodes of oxygen deprivation followed by re-oxygenation – the hallmark of sleep apnea – may lead to stress that further injures the hippocampus and nearby areas of the brain. This makes the brain more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease.

Other research has also linked obstructive sleep apnea to a range of different cognitive impairments. These can include damage to memories and decision making, as well as the ability to learn new information.

How to Help a Loved One with Sleep Apnea and Alzheimer’s Disease 

As researchers continue to work to better understand the connection between sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s, there are steps you can take now to support your loved one with both conditions. First, it’s critical they get medical care to treat sleep apnea, so they can improve the quality of their nighttime rest and lower their risk for additional cognitive damage. If you’re a primary family caregiver of someone with Alzheimer’s disease and sleep apnea, make sure you’re also focusing on:

  • Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle. Obesity and even being overweight can make sleep apnea worse. It’s why losing weight through a healthy diet and exercise plan is so important. In fact, this step alone can significantly reduce the number of sleep apnea episodes that occur each night. In addition, both smoking and consuming alcohol can escalate symptoms of sleep apnea. Alcohol even impacts how the brain works. Therefore, it’s best to quit smoking and limit drinking or avoid it altogether.
  • Adhering Closely to a Routine. As their condition progresses, your loved one may become increasingly frustrated with their loss of mental and physical abilities. However, when they know what to expect each day through a routine, they will feel more calm and secure. In fact, those with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia thrive on familiarity and routine and experience less agitation with a regular schedule in place.
  • Keeping the Home Safe. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease can experience balance loss and diminished motor skills depending on the stage of their disease. It’s why evaluating their home for safety hazards is important. Monitor the areas where your loved one spends the most time. Make sure you’re getting rid of loose area rugs, fixing broken steps and installing grab bars in key spots.
  • Anticipating their Needs. There will be times when a loved one becomes agitated and it’s hard to understand why. This can be especially difficult if they’re struggling with sleep apnea and the resulting sleep deprivation. Try to be patient and ask questions – such as if they are tired or hungry – that help them articulate their specific needs.
  • Investing in an Alert System. If your loved one is alone at times and you’re fearful about their safety – especially at night – invest in a home alert system. This will allow them to press a button and get the help they need from a 24/7 monitoring center. If your loved one can’t speak, a first responder will be sent to their home and a list of key contacts will then be called.
  • Getting Respite Help. It’s just as important for you to take care of yourself as it is to meet your loved one’s needs. Respite care can be invaluable, providing access to experienced and compassionate caregivers to step in and help when needed. Whether it’s through regular weekly breaks or while you’re away on vacation, finding someone you can trust will improve your well-being and quality of life.

Read more about the health concerns, common threads and treatment options of sleep apnea in Your Guide to Sleep Apnea, written by a Slumber Yard Certified Sleep Coach and medically reviewed by a board-certified adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner.

If you’re looking for caregivers who can help a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease and sleep apnea, contact your local FirstLight® Home Care today. We can meet their needs with personalized services and even provide respite care for you and your family, too.

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