Sleep apnea is a disorder where you stop breathing for at least 10 seconds multiple times at night. Research has found that this can affect future brain health. Almost a billion adults aged between 30 and 69 suffer from apnea, and most go undiagnosed.
Having sleep apnea means you spend less time in deep sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep. The study found that people who don’t get enough deep sleep get more damage to white matter in the brain. White matter is the tissue that connects the brain and the nervous system. Under a brain scan, people with apnea have damage to their white matter, similar to being 2-3 years older.
What does damage to white matter do to the brain?
White matter damage cuts off communication with other parts of the brain. As a result, this can affect memory, balance, and mobility. It also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Scientists also found that damage to white matter is a marker for an increased risk of stroke and dementia.
For white matter to remain healthy, there must be optimal blood and nutrient flow within the network of cells. Damage can include swelling, breaking, or complete loss. A poor diet and lack of exercise can also cause it.
White matter damage is more common among people over 60. But with apnea, the damage can affect the brain earlier than expected. However, there are people who are genetically predisposed to white matter disease.
The symptoms of white matter damage include:
- Memory problems
- Walking slowly
- Balance problems
- Mood changes
- Urinary incontinence
- Trouble doing more than one thing at the same time
Why is slow-wave sleep important?
The first and second sleep stages lead the body to decrease its rhythm. In the third stage, deep sleep, the body restores any damaged cells. The body’s tears during the day are fixed, and the memories are stored for long-term use.
Studies show that the deepest sleep helps with improving immune function. It also helps the brain clean out waste most effectively. This includes beta-amyloid, which is a marker of Alzheimer’s.
To know if your sleep is healthy, you need to have uninterrupted sleep throughout the whole night. If you wake up to pee or have a glass of water, you should be able to fall back asleep as quickly as possible. With each sleep cycle being 90 minutes long, adults need about 7-9 hours of sleep each night for healthy brain function and general well-being. This is also the only way for adults to achieve restorative sleep.
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People with sleep apnea wake up multiple times at night because of snoring or gasping for breath. The constant micro-awakenings make it difficult to complete the sleep cycles that end with deep sleep. Apnea also decreases the chances of getting from deep sleep into Rapid Eye Movement sleep, which is where dreams occur. Studies show limited REM sleep leads to memory decline, poor cognitive function, heart disease, and early death.
White matter damage isn’t a guarantee that it will decline your brain health. It can also occur among middle-aged adults due to prolonged exposure to pollution, stress, and cardiovascular issues.
It is important to have a discussion with your doctor about this.
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