Caring Currents

Now People With Dementia and Their Caregivers Can Both Breathe Easier

Last updated: Dec 05, 2008

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Sleep apnea is one of those disorders that suddenly every other person I know seems to have. Kind of boring, I thought, until I learned recently h ow much it affects people with dementia -- and those who care for them .

Sleep apnea is scary. It happens when tissue blocks the airway during sleep or the brain fails to tell the muscles to breathe -- and breathing stops. For as long as one minute. It can happen dozens or even hundreds of time a night. Apnea can lead to cardiovascular trouble, depression, and colossal crankiness -- bad for everyone in the house.

THE NEWS… that a common treatment for sleep apnea seems to improve cognitive functioning -- including verbal learning, memory, and some mental processing speed -- in people with Alzheimer's who also suffer from sleep apnea.

The treatment is known as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)  -- usually a small machine attached by a flexible tube to a mask or other device worn on the nose and/or mouth.

Top sleep researchers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found CPAP use also reduced daytime sleepiness (which of course can mess up sleep at night).

They don't think apnea causes cognitive problems, but apnea is known to worsen cognition even in people without dementia .


As many as 70 to 80 percent of people with dementia have sleep apnea.

And being overweight and over 40 are major risk factors -- so a hefty percentage of caregivers likely have apnea, too .

It's as common as adult diabetes.


For those with dementia, how easy it is to get the person to wear a mask at night (and not fight it) may depend a lot on the individual. The study looked at people who had mild to moderate cases. But many otherwise-healthy individuals dislike CPAP and go through many styles of devices to find one they're comfortable with.

Do you think it would work with the person you're caring for, if apnea were diagnosed? Cognitive improvement is a huge incentive, so it's worth asking your doctor about it.

For caregivers, The American Sleep Apnea Association invites you to check your own " snore score ":

  • Are you a loud and/or regular snorer?
  • Have you ever been observed to gasp or stop breathing during sleep?
  • Do you feel tired or groggy upon awakening, or do you awaken with a headache?
  • Are you often tired or fatigued during the wake time hours?
  • Do you fall asleep sitting, reading, watching TV, or driving?
  • Do you often have problems with memory or concentration?

Every "yes"  ups your risk for sleep apnea -- especially if you're also overweight and/or have a thick neck. The Association recommends mentioning the matter to your doctor. And if you answered yes to the last question, wouldn't you be more relieved to discover the cause is a treatable problem like apnea than dementia -- the self-diagnosis caregivers tend to jump to first when we experience memory problems in ourselves?

Image by Flickr user Perla* , used under the Creative Commons attribution license.