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Sleep apnea treatment may reverse memory problems

Mon Dec 11, 2006 11:53pm ET

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The results of a preliminary study suggest that memory deficits that are common among people with sleep apnea can improve when they are treated with positive airway pressure.

Sleep apnea occurs when breathing passages become obstructed during sleep, often when soft tissues around the larynx and throat collapse inward. Breathing can be interrupted temporarily but frequently, often accompanied by snoring. A proven treatment is a face or nose mask connected to a machine that delivers continuous pressurized air to keep the airways open during sleep.

Dr. Molly E. Zimmerman at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York, and her associates screened 179 people diagnosed with sleep apnea, and identified 58 with measurable memory impairments.

All 58 subjects were prescribed treatment with a positive airway pressure (PAP) device, with an internal microprocessor to monitor compliance. The results are reported in the December issue of the medical journal Chest.

After 3 months of treatment, the investigators classified subjects according to treatment adherence: 14 used positive airway pressure on average of less than 2 hours per night (poor users); 25 who used PAP 2 to 6 hours per night (moderate users); and 19 who used the device more than 6 hours per night (optimal users).

Zimmerman's team found that 21 percent of poor users, 44 percent of moderate users, and 68 percent of optimal users achieved normal memory performance after 3 months.

"The information obtained from these results could be used as a potential motivator for (sleep apnea) patients struggling with poor positive airway pressure adherence," the investigators suggest.