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Obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder where the muscles of your airway fall in, blocking your throat and your breathing when you sleep, is at epidemic proportions and estimated to affect more than 936 million people worldwide.
And, with the number of people being diagnosed with the condition increasing steadily, it’s been linked to everything from erectile dysfunction to extreme health risks like a stroke.
Now, researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia say that if you’re living with sleep apnea, you could also be at risk for memory loss and even depression.
Overgeneral memories and sleep apnea
Their study compared 44 adults with untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) to 44 healthy controls, to assess their recall of different types of memories from their childhood, early adult life, and recent life.
And, the results showed people with OSA had significantly more overgeneral memories – 52.3% compared with 18.9% of the control group. Basically, overgeneral memories are when you can’t recall specific memories but only events that happen repeatedly or over a long period of time.
It didn’t end there either…
The study also looked at the effect of sleep apnea on semantic memory (facts and details of your personal history, like the names of your school teachers) and episodic memory (events or episodes, like your first day of high school).
And, the researchers found that while people with OSA struggled with semantic memory, their episodic memory wasn’t affected. According to the team, these problems with semantic memory are most likely due to the fragmented sleep that’s a hallmark of sleep apnea.
If that wasn’t enough, those memory problems were also found to lead to higher levels of depression.
“We know that overly general autobiographical memories – where people don’t remember many specific details of life events – are associated with the development of persistent depression,” said lead investigator Dr. Melinda Jackson said. “Our study suggests sleep apnea may impair the brain’s capacity to either encode or consolidate certain types of life memories, which makes it hard for people to recall details from the past.”
When you put it all together, that means that if you’re living with sleep apnea, bits of your past could be going missing each and every night, leaving you struggling to remember the most precious moments of your life and setting you up for depression.
Better sleep, improved memory
There are a number of things that can help improve your sleep apnea, starting with lifestyle changes.
Avoiding alcohol, losing excess weight, exercising and sleeping on your side can all help, especially if your sleep apnea is mild.
But, if you have a more severe problem, the tried and true choice for sleep apnea treatment is a CPAP or continuous positive airway pressure that uses compressed air to keep your airway open and you breathing normally as you sleep.
Although many people complain that CPAP masks are uncomfortable, it’s worth a little discomfort to avoid the serious risks sleep apnea comes with.