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Treating Sleep Apnea In Alzheimer’s Patients May Help Cognition

December 4, 2008

Adapted from the University of California, San Diego

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment seems to improve cognitive functioning in patients with Alzheimer's disease who also suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, according to the results of a randomized clinical trial conducted at the University of California (UC), San Diego. The study - led by Sonia Ancoli-Israel, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and one of the nation's preeminent experts in the field of sleep disorders and sleep research in aging populations – was published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

A CPAP machine is a breathing assist device worn over the mouth or nose, providing constant pressurized air and giving nighttime relief for individuals who suffer from sleep apnea.

The research team, including physicians from UC San Diego's departments of psychiatry, medicine, neurosciences and family and preventive medicine, and Veteran's Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, looked at 52 men and women with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep, caused by a temporary, partial, or complete blockage in the airway. The prevalence of OSA in patients with dementia has been estimated to be as high as 70 to 80 percent.

“Although it is unlikely that OSA causes dementia, the lowered oxygen levels and sleep fragmentation associated with OSA might worsen cognitive function,” said Ancoli-Israel. “This study, which showed significant improvement in patients' neurological test scores after treatment with CPAP, suggests that clinicians who treat patients with Alzheimer's disease and sleep apnea should consider implementing CPAP treatment.”

“The severity of these sleep disruptions may parallel the decline in cognitive functioning seen in elderly patients with Alzheimer's disease,” said Ancoli-Israel. “While CPAP by no means treats the underlying cause of Alzheimer's disease, by improving patients' sleep patterns, the hope is that their overall cognitive functioning can also improve.”

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