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Data from five population studies suggest that better sleep may help protect cognitive function in adults. Image credit: ismagilov/Getty Images.
  • A new analysis looking at data from five population-based studies delved deeper into the relationship between obstructive sleep apnea, lack of sufficient sleep, and cognitive function.
  • The analysis found that preventing obstructive sleep apnea — when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep — and better sleep consolidation was linked to better cognitive function in the participants.
  • By contrast, shorter sleep duration was linked with impaired attention and other cognitive issues.

In adults without dementia, sleep consolidation and the absence of obstructive sleep apnea could be important for optimizing cognition with aging, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers looked at data from five population-based studies across the United States with at least 5 years of follow-up. Studies were overnight sleep studies with neuropsychological assessments. They analyzed the data between March 2020 and June 2023.

The scientists looked at sleep studies specific to sleep consolidation and sleep apnea and their association with the risk of dementia and related cognitive and brain function.

The study included 5,945 adults without any history or presence of stroke or dementia.

The researchers found that better sleep consolidation and the absence of obstructive sleep apnea are associated with higher cognitive function, and short sleep duration was associated with poorer attention and processing speed.

Consolidated sleep refers to sleep that is continuous and uninterrupted by night awakenings.

Obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by episodes of a collapse of the airway, which can decrease oxygen and result in fragmented and nonrestorative sleep.

The researchers also found that better sleep consolidation and the absence of sleep apnea were associated with better cognition over the 5-year follow-up.

The scientists suggested that these findings indicated that more research on interventions’ role in improving consolidated sleep to maintain cognitive function is needed.

“Some aspects [of this study] were predictable and further reinforced concepts related to the association between sleep and cognition over time,” Dr. Vernon Williams, a sports neurologist, pain management specialist, and founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, not involved in this study, told Medical News Today.

”An interesting and less predictable finding in this study was the lack of association between cognitive decline and specific sleep stages. One would have predicted that a reduction in slow-wave, deep sleep would be more detrimental than other stages, but that was not the case. There are many potential explanations, but that is an interesting finding.”

– Dr. Vernon Williams

“This study [further] helps by demonstrating effects across multiple groups of participants and by demonstrating that overall sleep efficiency,” Dr. Williams continued, “as well as the presence of obstructive sleep apnea — whether or not a prior diagnosis exists — significantly affect cognition over time.”

Obstructive sleep apnea is a common condition where breathing stops. It restarts many times while you sleep, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Medical experts estimate that between 25 and 30% of men, and between 9 and 17% of women have obstructive sleep apnea. Prevalence increases with age.

The most common type of sleep apnea is a narrowing or collapse of the upper airway stopping airflow. When this happens, the person stops breathing for a short period and then starts again during their sleep and typically is not aware this is happening.

It can lead to poor quality sleep, trouble concentrating, and problems with decision-making and memory.

According to the American Lung Association, signs of sleep apnea include:

It is also linked to other health conditions. Research shows that obstructive sleep apnea might raise the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Dr. Laura DeCesaris, a functional medicine doctor and health and wellness coach, not involved in the study, told MNT that lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, not smoking, and not drinking, can help decrease obstructive sleep apnea.

In addition, she offered the following tips to improve sleep:

  • managing stress more effectively and paying attention to where the body holds stress — many people hold tension in their neck and shoulders, resulting in this forward head carriage and posture not conducive to proper breathing
  • paying attention to sleep posture, as side sleeping can sometimes help with symptoms
  • since chronic inflammation in the gut and nasal passages often makes breathing through the nose difficult modifying the diet and switching towards a more anti-inflammatory diet where possible could help
  • exercising regularly
  • staying hydrated and trying out a humidifier in the bedroom, especially in a dry climate.