Flinders University sleep health experts are working on developing improved solutions for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) to ward off a range of health risks, including cognitive decline, according to a release from the university.  

Heightened risk of cognitive function decline from undiagnosed OSA—particularly in middle-aged men living in the community—is the focus of one of the latest studies published in Sleep Health. The study recorded the sleep patterns of more than 470 men, ages 41 to 87, alongside their daytime cognitive function for processing speed, visual attention, episodic memory recollection, and other markers.

Measuring distinct features of brain electrical activity during non-REM sleep, called sleep spindles, the study aimed to explore if these features can serve as markers of cognitive function. Non-REM sleep includes light stage 1 and 2 sleep, as well as deeper stage 3 sleep which is thought to play an important role in learning and memory. 

“Our study found cross-sectional associations between various domains of next-day cognitive function and several sleep spindle metrics during stage 2 and stage 3 of their sleep cycle. The presence and severity of OSA was an important factor in this relationship,” says Flinders University sleep researcher Jesse Parker, PhD, in a release.

While standard clinical tests for OSA may detect and help to improve this common sleep-related breathing disorder with interventions such as CPAP or specific dental devices, the condition varies between people depending on gender, age, and other factors.

Based on this latest Florey Adelaide Male Ageing Study results, the Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute Sleep Health researchers recommend long-term investigations into sleep spindle phases and OSA to improve future treatments—and to determine whether OSA interventions such as CPAP do improve sleep quality and cognitive function.

Sleep apnea affects more than 1 billion people globally and, if untreated or severe, may increase the risk of dementia, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression, reduced quality of life, traffic accidents, and all-cause mortality, previous research has found. 

“Highlighting the need for better treatments, our latest studies not only make more links between sleep disorders and poor health outcomes but also the need for tailored specific treatments for individual cases, including co-occurring conditions such as insomnia and sleep apnea,” says associate professor Andrew Vakulin, senior author on the publication and Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute Sleep Health researcher, in a release. “Along with uncontrolled hypertension, this latest study also clearly links cognitive function to sleep in adult males, possibly made worse by undiagnosed moderate to severe OSA.”

Photo caption: Associate professor Andrew Vakulin is searching for solutions to sleep disorders with the Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute Sleep Health group.

Photo credit: The Hospital Research Foundation, South Australia