A study revealed that older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s who experience sleep apnea during REM sleep have a greater decline in verbal memory, with women being particularly affected.


Summary: A UC Irvine-led study found a link between sleep apnea events during REM sleep and verbal memory impairment in older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Published in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, the research showed that higher apnea ratios during REM were associated with worse memory performance. The study, involving 81 participants, highlighted that women are more likely to experience apnea in REM sleep, potentially increasing their Alzheimer’s risk. These findings emphasize the need to focus on REM-specific apnea for better diagnosis and treatment of memory decline in Alzheimer’s-prone individuals.

Key Takeaways:

  • The study found that sleep apnea events during the REM stage are significantly linked to verbal memory decline in older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Women are more likely to have a greater proportion of apnea events during REM sleep compared to men, potentially contributing to their higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
  • Current evaluation standards may overlook REM-specific apnea severity, suggesting a need for more focused assessments to improve diagnosis and treatment of memory impairment in Alzheimer’s-prone individuals.

A research team led by the University of California, Irvine has revealed the link between the frequency of sleep apnea events during the rapid-eye-movement (REM) stage and the severity of verbal memory impairment in older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Verbal memory refers to the cognitive ability to retain and recall information presented through spoken words or written text and is particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer’s.

The study, published online in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, discovered a specific correlation between the severity of sleep apnea and diminished cognition. Higher ratios during REM compared to non-REM stages were associated with worse memory performance.

Recognizing REM-Specific Apnea Events

“Our findings identified the specific features of sleep apnea that are associated with memory, which is important because, clinically, events occurring during REM sleep are often overlooked or minimized,” says co-corresponding author Bryce Mander, PhD, UC Irvine associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior, in a release. “Most hours of sleep are non-REM, so the overall averages of apnea severity can look much lower than what is typically observed during REM sleep. This means that someone at risk can be misdiagnosed and undertreated because current evaluation standards are not focused on sleep-stage-specific apnea severity.”

“Furthermore,” says co-corresponding author Ruth Benca, MD, professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in a release, “we found that women are more likely to have a greater proportion of their apneic events in REM sleep in comparison to men, which could potentially be contributing to their greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

REM Apnea’s Role in Memory Decline for Alzheimer’s Risk Group

The study involved 81 middle-aged and older adults from the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center with heightened risk factors, of whom 62 percent were female. Participants underwent polysomnography and verbal memory assessments. Results showed apnea events during REM to be a critical factor contributing to verbal memory decline, especially among individuals with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s and those with a parental history of the disease.

“Our findings highlight the intricate relationship among sleep apnea, memory function, and Alzheimer’s risk,” Mander says in a release. “Identifying and addressing REM-specific events are crucial for developing proactive, personalized approaches to assessment and treatment that are tailored to individual sleep patterns.”

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