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Health Team

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

Posted August 9, 2011 5:30 p.m. EDT

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.