Sleep Apnea – Health Complications and Treatment

In my last blog, “Sleep Apnea – What to Look Out For,” I outlined the symptoms and risk factors for sleep apnea, an often under diagnosed breathing disorder that can disrupt sleep and affect health, including cognitive function.

If you or a loved one have a suspicion that sleep apnea is a concern, it is critical to speak with your physician and ask to be tested for sleep apnea as untreated sleep apnea can cause many health complications, including:

  • Memory loss – A study done at New York University looked at 2500 people between the ages of 55 and 90 who were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Those with breathing problems during sleep were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) an average of 10 years earlier than those without breathing problems during sleep.
  • Daytime sleepiness that can cause difficulty concentrating, irritability, depression, and even falling asleep while driving.
  • High blood pressure and heart problems caused by the decreased oxygen when you stop breathing.
  • Elevated blood pressure that can lead to heart attack, stroke and abnormal heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation.
  • Type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome
  • More complications after surgery and when given sedating medications like narcotics,
  • Liver problems
  • Relationship problems due to a sleep deprived partner.

The good news is that sleep apnea can be treated:

  1. CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) Machine – A machine delivers a pressurized flow of oxygen into the airway to keep it open at night. The air is delivered using a mask that either covers the mouth and nose or just the nose.  It can also be delivered by nasal “pillows” inserted into each nostril.  People who were treated with CPAP in the above-mentioned study of Alzheimer’s disease patients maintained their cognitive function 10 years longer than those not treated.
  2. Oral appliance – This is a device worn during sleep that resembles a sports mouth guard or orthodontic retainer. It keeps the jaw in a forward position to help keep the airway open.

While sleep apnea can cause many health problems and affect memory, it is easy to test for and easy to treat. Ask your loved ones if they notice that you snore loudly, stop breathing as you sleep, or gasp or choke during sleep.  If you feel drowsy during the day, notice that you fall asleep easily while watching TV or driving, or feel irritable, it is critically important to discuss your concerns with your doctor.

For more information or to learn more about AFFIRMATIVhealth’s RE:mind Program, a science-based program to improve cognitive function, please visit

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