The Stroke Belt: Memory Loss From Sleep Apnea?

It’s already been shown that stroke and sleep apnea can go hand in hand: Untreated obstructive sleep apnea increases your chances of having a stroke by 2-3 times normal. Having a stroke can also increase your chances of developing or worsening sleep apnea. I’ve stated in the past that a stroke doesn’t happen all of a sudden—it’s the end result of a cumulative series of events that leads to a major brain artery blockage or hemorrhage. But even before this major stroke occurs, there’s already some degree of very mild or minor small vessel damage. Studies have shown that untreated sleep apnea patients have multiple area of damaged brian tissue, especially in areas that control memory, executive function and autonomic control. Other studies show numerous small microscopic strokes that are detectible on CT or MRI scans.

A recent article in the New York Times described an increased association between stroke and memory loss in people who live in the stroke belt (deep south). The researchers mention possible underlying risk factors, including hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity. Not surprisingly, they don’t mention obstructive sleep apnea at all. Yes, a good diet and regular exercise are important to address, but not treating obstructive sleep apnea is a recipe for failure. Not getting efficient sleep promotes weight gain, so it’s going to be a struggle to lose weight, no matter how healthy you eat or how much you exercise.

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