I grew up listening to my dad snore so loud that I could hear it across the apartment through two closed doors. As kids, my sister and I would wake him up every time his snoring eclipsed the TV. Of course, he always fell right back asleep less than 30 seconds later.

At the time, none of us knew he had sleep apnea. While snoring doesn’t always mean someone has sleep apnea, it is a risk factor and loud snoring could indicate a serious problem. For my dad, it did. 

Though he was initially reluctant to go through the long sleep clinic process to get a diagnosis, my sister and I bothered him until he went. Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to the development or worsening of various life threatening conditions. 

Not only can untreated sleep apnea cause sudden cardiac death (an uncommon worst case scenario) in people over 60 with severe symptoms, it can also dramatically affect your brain health. 

Extremely underdiagnosed, Statistics Canada predicts as much as a quarter of Canadians have or are at high risk of having sleep apnea. A mere 6.4 per cent of Canadians have an official diagnosis, leaving most people without help.

Even those with a diagnosis can find themselves struggling to use their Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) because it can be uncomfortable and limits movement. Though for most people, the long-term benefits far outweigh the cost, using a CPAP can cause facial hickeys, are loud, and can feel alarming to have a machine breathe for you.

How it Affects Your Brain

Good quality sleep is essential to a fully functioning memory. While you rest, your brain clears out toxins, consolidates your memories of the day and prepares you to learn more tomorrow. Not getting enough sleep or getting poor quality sleep “can lower your learning abilities by up to 40 per cent,” writes the Sleep Foundation.

People with sleep apnea do not get good quality sleep since their body is constantly waking them up to re-engage their muscles to resume normal breathing. 

Researchers have found that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) causes the same plaques and tangles that are an indication of Alzheimer’s disease to appear in the brain. These indicators even spread throughout your brain in the same way. The more severe your sleep apnea, the more plaques and tangles you likely have.

Like most complications associated with sleep apnea, the connection goes both ways. People with OSA, especially untreated, are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and vice versa. 

Also associated with memory loss, people with OSA have a higher risk of developing depression. A common symptom of the illness, people with depression often have poor working memory and an even harder time remembering their own experiences. 

Researchers are still learning about the bidirectional connection between the two and are not completely sure how they affect each other.

Treatment is crucial to avoiding or delaying these complications. The most effective option available in Canada is the CPAP machine which regulates your breathing for you. It’ll take some getting used to before it feels natural to sleep with a CPAP on and many people report struggling to use it consistently at first.

Not sure about your CPAP coverage? Read The Health Insider’s article: Breathe Easier – a Guide to Canadian Coverage for Sleep Disorders and CPAP Machines.

How Do I Know If I Have Sleep Apnea?

There are three types of sleep apnea and though they work differently, the end result is the same. The affected person has poor quality sleep because they can’t regulate their breathing. 

The Canadian Lung Association and Mayo Clinic list symptoms as:

  • Loud snoring.
  • Episodes in which you stop breathing during sleep — which would be reported by another person.
  • Gasping for air during sleep.
  • Awakening with a dry mouth.
  • Morning headache.
  • Difficulty staying asleep, known as insomnia.
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, known as hypersomnia.
  • Difficulty paying attention while awake.
  • Irritability.

Based on the list above, if you suspect you have sleep apnea, ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep clinic and testing which is covered by provincial Medicare. The process is long and a bit uncomfortable, you’ll need to sleep at the clinic while hooked up to electrodes and possibly a mask to determine heart, brain, and lung function during rest as well as breathing patterns, movement, and blood oxygen levels. You may require more than one session. Talk to your doctor for details specific to your problem.

The effects of sleep apnea go way beyond poor sleep and can have serious implications on quality of life. Treating sleep apnea can keep your brain healthier and happier to get the most out of life.  Plus it can actually save your life.

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