Health Team

Study: Can sleep apnea cause cognitive problems in elderly women?

Posted August 9, 2011

Older people may think sleep problems are just a symptom of aging, but doctors say most sleep problems can be diagnosed and treated effectively.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers looked at whether untreated sleep apnea increases the risk of cognitive problems or dementia.

Ruth Lym was diagnosed with sleep apnea, a breathing disorder where the throat collapses or constricts during sleep, shutting off oxygen for 10 to 30 seconds or more at a time.

"When I was asleep, my oxygen saturation was down to 68 percent,” Lym said. A normal range is 90 percent or higher.

Dr. Katie Stone, with the California Pacific Medical Center, says doctors are interested in finding out whether older women with sleep apnea have a higher risk of developing cognitive problems over time.

The latest study looked at 300 elderly women with no cognitive problems. They had a sleep study to measure oxygen levels and sleep quality and then were retested five years later. About 35 percent of the women had moderate or severe sleep apnea.

"There was about an 85 percent or nearly the doubling of risk of onset of cognitive problems,” Stone said.

Lym says her CPAP oxygen machine, known as continuous positive airway pressure, has brought good, healthy sleep back into her life.

"Whatever it takes to deal with using a CPAP is absolutely worth it to your life and the lives of people who love you,” Lym said.

Researchers say low oxygen levels played more of a role in women's cognitive problems than poor sleep quality.


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  • Amomoftwo Aug 15, 2011

    I have been a CPAP user for 5 years....I too had an issue with the small nose only was suffocating for me...I changed to an all face mask and sleep like a baby each night...yes there is a hum but my husband thinks it's worth it because it's made me a more rested wife! I also like to sleep with a thin pillow over my head to help lower the works for me! There are CPAP support groups that are helpful....

  • Arapaloosa Aug 12, 2011

    Just curious, any reason why they only studied women? Seems to me that this would be a concern for men, too.

  • Desiderata Aug 10, 2011

    They needed a study to figure this out?? Oxygen depravation itself causes cognition problems,,,and this is what happens with sleep apnea ,,so put one and one together...glad those who need help got it.

  • Icaretoo Aug 10, 2011

    To 'Questioning' - I've worn a CPAP for about 5 years. Please tell your Mom to find a mask that works for her. If the mask fits properly you will not feel the force of the air coming in. Good luck.

  • Been there once Aug 10, 2011

    My husband had one of those about 10yrs ago. It was like sleeping with Darth Vaider. I have a hearing loss so just popped the hearing aids out for a good nights sleep.

  • elibbybh Aug 10, 2011

    I've been wearing a CPAP for 6 years now and can't imagine sleeping without it because I wouldn't be sleeping. It may take a while to find a mask that works but if it's been prescribed, apparently there is a problem with your sleeping as it was for me. As a woman, maybe I should be glad I started treatment early-maybe that will help me cognitively in the future.

  • shm Aug 10, 2011

    oceancandle you need to check with your dr. before you stop using the CPAP, speaking for myself, I have been on it for 4-5 months and it is the greatest thing that has happened to me.

  • Questioning Aug 10, 2011

    My mom couldn't wear the CPAP. She said it was like a hurricane trying to force air down her throat.

  • oceancandle Aug 9, 2011

    If normal oxygen levels are 90% or higher during sleep, then why am I wearing a CPAP?! Mine is 94%! And I don't stop breathing, I just have a major snoring affliction...even with the CPAP on! Not to mention, managing to keep the CPAP on for the entire night makes me so tired I can't function the next day...unlike people who actually do stop breathing, they tell me they can't function without wearing it all night.