Sleep apnea disrupts the sleep of 10% to 20% of middle-aged and older adults—and the damage may not end there. Older women who suffer from the condition are twice as likely to face memory decline and other symptoms of dementia, according to a new study that followed 289 women with a mean age of 82 over five years, all of whom tested cognitively "normal" at the study's start. Researchers think the elevated risk could be an effect of decreased oxygen getting to the brain, but they said there is not enough data to be sure yet—a separate pathology could be causing both.
Still, researchers noted that the risk seemed to be tied to the total amount of time woman were deprived of oxygen, not the amount of sleep they got or the number of breathing stoppages they experienced. This linkage "is another reason why you want to be medically followed carefully and possibly treated" for sleep apnea, said the lead author. The researchers say they think they will find similar results for men, but more study is needed, reports the Wall Street Journal. The impact on those with mild sleep apnea also wasn't tested; the women in this study had moderate sleep apnea—15 or more sleep interruptions an hour. (Read more dementia stories.)