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The importance of sleep in healthy aging

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When I was a child, my then 26-year old aunt died, unexpectedly and suddenly.  She simply felt tired, lay down and never got up again.  My family was quite disbelieving that foul play hadn’t happened and so we did something most families don’t’ do when someone dies.  We had an autopsy performed.  When that didn’t find anything, we had another one performed and finally a third.  What all this is leading up to is that because my aunt died, my family knows it has a tendency towards sleep apnea.  We might have found that out eventually without a death in the family but if it hadn’t been my aunt it probably would have been someone else.  You see we all talked about how my father would quit breathing in the middle of the night, get really cold then suddenly snort and begin breathing or that sleeping in a house filled with family members was like trying to sleep in the middle of a freight yard and that still others thrashed around so much while they were sleeping that they fell out of bed.  But we never talked about it to our doctors; it was just a part of family lore.  It just was something that was-like having blue eyes and blond hair.

What doctors know now is that lack of sleep can make your decisions questionable.  It can make you miserable to be around.  But, it can also be a link to dementia.  New research from the Mayo Clinic suggests that certain sleep conditions, such as sleep apnea, especially in men, are five times more likely to lead to developing Lewy bodies.  Lewy bodies are a type of protein that hampers normal brain function and are most commonly found in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates as much as 90 percent of U.S. adults with obstructive sleep apnea go undiagnosed.  No studies have been done so far to see if treating sleep disorders will ultimately impact whether or not sufferers get dementia but since we know that sleep disorders also lead to diabetes, hypertension, psychiatric problems and even cancer, it makes sense for families to start pressing for those answers.

Older women have shown a marked increase in dementia when they have sleep apnea, but the situation is more likely to create problems for men, African Americans, Latinos or Pacific Islanders so it is especially important for them or their partners to monitor sleep habits.  As always, talk to your doctor about any family history of sleep disorders or any changes in sleep patterns.

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