MIAMI — Shary Smith never suspected that her memory lapses had anything to do with her snoring. But when she looked up "short-term memory loss" on the Internet after her neurologist's diagnosis, sleep apnea popped up.
"I never thought of putting two and two together," said the Weston retiree. "I didn't think they were related."
A sleep study confirmed she had sleep apnea, a disorder that causes pauses in breathing or very shallow breathing during the night. She was fitted with a continuous positive airway pressure device, more commonly known as a CPAP, eight years ago. Her sleep is better now, and her memory hasn't gotten any worse.
About 12 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Yet, the America Sleep Association estimates that as many as 80 percent are undiagnosed. Untreated sleep apnea can be dangerous.
"It affects your brain health and your heart health," says Cleveland Clinic neurologist Dr. Po-Heng Tsai.
Sleep apnea has been linked to diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. More recently it has been associated with cognitive impairment and dementia.
Without deep sleep, people cannot retain information. Their reflexes slow. They can't concentrate, experience mood swings, suffer from morning headaches and feel irritable.
"Sleep is important for memory consolidation," Tsai says. "It's vital for the processing of information."
Sleep apnea is more common in older people and as many as 60 percent may suffer from it, says Dr. Alberto Ramos, co-director of UHealth Sleep Center and assistant professor of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The good news is that seniors can be screened for sleep problems, including sleep apnea. If diagnosed and treated early, a person can enjoy deep, restful slumber. For those suffering from cognitive impairment, it may even slow the rate of mental decline.
"I don't think I've recovered what I lost," Smith says, but "I'm not getting worse."