A new study suggests that breathing difficulties or less time in deep sleep may trigger a risk of brain changes, especially for older men. Though such changes may not lead to dementia, they could elevate the risk for such conditions as they play role in mental decline. Even previous studies have suggested that certain sleep disturbances increases dementia risk.

The study findings are based on brain autopsies from 167 elderly men of Japanese-American origin. AS part of this longitudinal health study, their brain activity and oxygen levels were monitored during their sleep. The study found that 25% of men with the lowest oxygen levels were four time more likely to show tiny abnormalities in brain tissue compared to men with high oxygen levels.

Dr. Rebecca Gelber, a study leader, said that the findings from this study would help explain how sleep disturbances could contribute to cognitive impairment and dementia. More abnormalities in brain tissue of elderly men were noticed, especially those having less oxygen circulating in their blood during sleep. Such abnormalities, known as Microinfarcts, can precede dementia.

In addition, men who spent less time in the deep, restorative sleep also showed more atrophy in their brain tissue. Both atrophy and Microinfarcts are more commonly seen in people with dementia compared to people without memory problems.

Keith Fargo, Director at the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago, asked to exercise caution in interpreting the results and stressed not to view them as cause-and-effect but as possible linkage. He said that the role of sleep in dementia risk is critical; however, there are still many questions.

Dr. Gelber also acknowledged the need for more research to determine the role of slow wave sleep in restoring brain function. She also suggested the need of research exploring whether risk of dementia could be lowered by preventing low blood oxygen levels.

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