Sleep Apnea and Memory Loss

Characterized by loud snoring with gasping for air upon waking up, sleep apnea is a medical condition that can become dangerous to the health. People with sleep apnea stop breathing at certain times throughout the night, causing a limited amount of oxygen to the body and creating a variety of symptoms and discomfort.

In addition to loud snoring and gasping for air or choking, some of the main symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Daytime sleepiness including during activity
  • Restless sleep and insomnia
  • Waking up with a dry or sore throat
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Forgetfulness, decreased libido, mood changes, and short attention span
  • Sleepiness while driving

Certain people are more likely to develop sleep apnea. Here are some of the risk factors for sleep apnea:

  • Excess Weight. Obese people are four times as likely to get sleep apnea as people who are of a healthy weight.
  • Neck Circumference. People with thick necks are more likely to struggle with breathing at night. For men, risk is higher for those with a neck larger than 17”. For women, 16” circumference.
  • Being Male. Men are two times as likely to have sleep apnea as women.
  • Alcohol Use. As a sedative, alcohol is likely to cause the throat to relax and possibly limit breathing.
  • Smoking. Three times more likely to have sleep apnea, smokers often have inflammation or retain fluid in the upper airway that may limit breathing.
  • Age. Older people are more likely to develop sleep apnea. Children with sleep apnea usually have a cause such as swollen tonsils or adenoids.
  • Narrowed Airway. Naturally narrowed throat, recessed chin, deviated septum or even nasal congestion can decrease the ability to breathe during sleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is due to the physical blockage of the airway, while central sleep apnea (CSA) is caused by a neurological malfunction where the brain does not signal the body to breathe. In either type of sleep apnea, one of the struggles that many people have is memory loss.

Memory Loss and Sleep Apnea

Everyone knows that a good night of sleep is very important in maintaining not only physical health, but mental health as well. Brains that are deprived of sleep are less able to process information from the day, and the ability to learn and remember is compromised.

In recent years, a connection has been made between sleep apnea and cognitive impairment, which includes memory loss. While normal levels of oxygen range between 94% and 98%, people with sleep apnea may have oxygen levels that fall as low as 80% or even lower. This decreased level of oxygen in the blood means that brain function is likely to be impaired and may result in memory loss as well as other health problems.

In addition to lower levels of oxygen in the blood, people whose sleep is less than it should be may be storing up toxins in their brains. Studies have shown that the glymphatic system (the waste removal system of your brain) works most effectively while the body is sleeping. Cerebral spinal fluid is pumped through the tissues of the brain, flushing out toxins and sending them into the circulatory system where they can be disposed of through the liver. Toxins are removed 10 times more effectively during sleep than during wakefulness, and the brain cells are significantly reduced in size (by 60%) to accomplish this cleansing process.

If your body is not sleeping well, even just for one night, then you may be subject to significant memory impairment, difficulty thinking clearly, and lowered ability to solve problems. When combined over time in situations such as sleep apnea, an impact can be made on circadian rhythms of the body which can have a detrimental effect on the health. Lack of sleep has been known to increase the risk of heart disease, alter metabolism and cause weight gain, halt new cell production in the brain, increase stress hormones in the brain, contribute to premature aging, raise the blood pressure, and even accelerate the growth of tumors.

Sleep Apnea Memory Loss

One study (Neurology Journal) has shown that a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment may come as early as ten or more years sooner in a person with sleep apnea when compared to people without sleep apnea. In fact, this may even be associated with an earlier onset of Alzheimer’s disease in people who live with untreated sleep apnea.

In relation to Alzheimer’s disease, people with sleep apnea tend to be diagnosed with memory loss at least five years sooner than people who do not have sleep apnea. While more studies need to be done, the assumption is that treatment of sleep apnea could possibly delay the onset of memory related diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This is an important reason for aging people with risk factors or symptoms of sleep apnea to be evaluated and treated.

Other health risks for people with untreated sleep apnea include increased obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and other possible issues. Diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea is critical in living a healthier lifestyle and reducing a myriad of health risks. If you suspect that you or a family member have sleep apnea, contact a medical professional or sleep specialist for care.

Treatment for Sleep Apnea Memory Loss

Sleep apnea is a condition that has grown significantly over the past few decades, possibly due to an increase in problems with people being overweight or obese. Diagnosis of sleep apnea typically includes a sleep study performed in a clinic similar to a hotel room, measuring brain waves, blood pressure, blood oxygen, eye movements, leg movements, heart rate, and various other non-invasive testing.

The good news is that sleep apnea is readily treated with today’s medical advancements including avoiding sleeping on the back, losing weight, exercising, and possibly making use of a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine if needed. Your options for treating sleep apnea allow you to get your life back on track in a healthy manner.


Sleep apnea that is diagnosed and treated early on is much less likely to result in long term memory loss and other health conditions. Diagnosis of this sleeping condition may sound scary, but the alternative of leaving it untreated is much more dangerous and can cause not only loss of memory, but even a premature death.

Read also: Sleep Apnea and Alcohol Relation

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