Sleep apnea is a keystone ailment, one that has a far-reaching impact on your overall health. It has dangerous links to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, and more. Now, though, researchers are building evidence that sleep apnea causes early onset dementia, including the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
The Brain’s Garbage System
Studies have shown that, on average, people with sleep apnea, or even more mild forms of sleep disordered breathing like snoring, develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and serious dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, about ten years younger than people without these sleep breathing problems.
Other research has also established that there is a good reason why this is the case. During sleep, our body performs the essential function of cleaning waste out of the brain. We only recently discovered the existence of the glymphatic system, the use of cerebrospinal fluid to remove toxic metabolic products from the brain. Until the discovery of the glymphatic system, it was thought that brain cells had to break the waste down themselves. Now we know that during sleep, the space between brain cells expands, and cerebrospinal fluid carries that waste away.
While it’s true that we haven’t directly linked the glymphatic system to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease–we haven’t even looked at the glymphatic system in humans yet!–we do have some compelling evidence. One of the key waste products that the glymphatic system removes is beta-amyloid proteins, and a buildup of these proteins has been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Are You Breathing Easy at Night?
As we come to understand the essential functions of sleep, we see just how dangerous interruptions of our sleep become. With sleep apnea, you might think that you’re sleeping a full night, but the truth may be that you’re waking up every few minutes because your breathing stops. You may wake hundreds of times a night and never know it. This prevents you from getting the restorative sleep your body–and your brain–needs.
So how do you know if you’re suffering from sleep apnea. Most likely, you‘re feeling tired during the day. You may wake up feeling unrested or have a headache. Anyone sleeping with you might have reported snoring, and you may have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, one of the most common ailments associated with sleep apnea.