The ‘causal link’ to Alzheimer’s you can break

There are different types of studies used in scientific research. Some are known as “observational studies.” That is, researchers observe the effect of a risk factor or treatment without trying to change who is or isn’t exposed to it.

Observational studies do not show causal relationships. They make observations about possible connections.

So when a study does make a causal connection between a certain condition or behavior and a disease — it’s pretty exciting. Then, researchers can make recommendations about eliminating the cause, thus lowering the risk of ending up with the disease.

Such is the case with a study that has linked a common sleep condition with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease…

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Sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s show similarities in the brain

It would make sense to most of us that a lack of oxygen to the brain could be related to cognitive impairment.

But a study from Australia’s University of Queensland has confirmed that there is indeed a causal relationship between a lack of oxygen to the brain during sleep and Alzheimer’s disease in mice.

Sleep apnea is a condition experienced mostly by people beyond middle age, where their throat muscles intermittently collapse and block the airway during sleep causing their breathing to stop and start.

When the University research team subjected mice to sleep deprivation, they found that it resulted in mild cognitive impairment.

“But we developed a novel way to induce sleep-disrupted breathing and found the mice displayed exacerbated pathological features of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Professor Elizabeth Coulson from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute and School of Biomedical Sciences.

In other words, when their breathing was disrupted in a way similar to what occurs in sleep apnea, the mice showed cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

“It demonstrated that hypoxia — when the brain is deprived of oxygen — caused the same selective degeneration of neurons that characteristically die in dementia,” says Professor Coulson.

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What to do if you think you have sleep apnea

Sleep apnea can be caused by a problem in the brain (central sleep apnea), or when muscles in your head and neck relax while you’re asleep and cause the surrounding tissue to press on your windpipe (obstructive sleep apnea).

Either way, you’ll know it by these symptoms:

  • Feeling exhausted even after a full night of sleep
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Snoring
  • Memory loss
  • Mood changes
  • Headaches
  • Waking up with a choking feeling

We now know that sleep apnea is much more than an inconvenience. Besides its connection to Alzheimer’s disease, severe sleep apnea can increase the risk of coronary artery disease, heart attacks and strokes.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, your doctor can have you undergo testing in one of two ways.

One involves spending the night in a “sleep lab” and undergoing a polysomnogram — the “gold standard” for diagnosing sleep apnea. Sensors monitor your heart rate, breathing, blood oxygen levels and brain waves.

The other is a home sleep apnea test. It’s similar to an overnight sleep study, but not recommended if a severe case of sleep apnea is suspected. It doesn’t involve brain wave monitoring, so it can’t conclusively diagnose sleep apnea. But it can let you know something is going on that warrants more testing.

In addition to treatment, which may include a CPAP or newer devices, consider other complementary therapies to boost the flow of oxygenated blood to your brain. Food can be a big help here, especially those that help the body produce nitric oxide to help blood vessel function.

And if you’re prescribed CPAP, try to stick with it…

According to Professor Coulson, “We couldn’t fit CPAP to mice, but we experimentally prevented the hypoxia and this stopped the cognitive impairment and neuron death, and also reduced the Alzheimer’s pathology.”

She adds, “Some dementia clinicians have reported their patient’s memory has improved after their sleep problems were identified and treated.”

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UQ study explains link between sleep apnea and dementia — Eureka Alert

Cholinergic basal forebrain degeneration due to sleep-disordered breathing exacerbates pathology in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease — Nature Communications

Sleep Apnea — Cleveland Clinic

Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.