Can Lack of Deep Sleep Damage Your Brain?

October 5, 2023
Doctor and patient reviewing brain scans

Your brain is your most precious asset — it is the source of everything you think, do, and feel. Although the human brain is remarkably resilient, it could be damaged by things at might at first seem to be inconsequential, such as a lack of deep sleep. What is the connection between sleep apnea, a lack of deep sleep, and brain damage? This blog post discusses some eye-opening research.

Sleep Apnea Interferes with Sleep Quality

Sleep apnea is a condition that is marked by repeated pauses in breathing (called apneas) throughout the night. These pauses only end because your brain senses that something is wrong — it arouses you enough that you start breathing normally again. You might not even notice that the apneas are happening, but they can occur dozens or even hundreds of times in a single night.

Sleep apnea can significantly reduce the amount of time that you spend in deep sleep, also called slow wave sleep. Slow wave sleep is important for maintaining the health of your brain.

A Lack of Deep Sleep and Brain Damage

There are different types of tissue in the brain. White matter is responsible for forming connections between brain cells and the rest of the nervous system. When a person’s brain is scanned, there may be small white spots known as white matter hyperintensities, which indicate damage to the white matter.

A study published earlier this year found that for every 10% decrease in time spent in slow wave sleep, there was a notable increase in white matter hyperintensities. These results indicate that the brains of people who are deprived of slow wave sleep actually age faster than those who get higher-quality sleep. Sadly, changes in white matter are correlated with a heightened risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

The researchers who conducted the study pointed out that white matter changes were most noticeable among individuals with severe untreated sleep apnea. People with mild or moderate sleep apnea did not appear to be at risk of the same type of brain damage.

Of course, it is worth bearing in mind that the human brain is extremely complex. The study established an association between white matter damage and sleep apnea, but it could not confirm that sleep apnea actually caused the problem.

What Can You Do?

Science does not currently offer any treatments that can reverse white matter damage. However, it can oftenbe prevented — at least to an extent.

If you suspect that you have sleep apnea, you should arrange for testing as soon as possible. After you receive a diagnosis, you can learn about your treatment options. Something like an oral sleep appliance from a dentist might be all you need to improve your nighttime breathing and spend more time in slow wave sleep.

Sleep apnea could damage your brain! Do your best to get high-quality shuteye so your precious mind can stay functional and sharp for as long as possible.

Meet the Practice

For well over 10 years, Dr. Kenneth Mogell has been helping patients find relief from sleep apnea via oral appliance therapy. If you suspect you have sleep apnea, or you have other concerns about the quality of your sleep, our team can help you arrange for testing. Get in touch with us via our website, or call our Vero Beach office at 772-882-6800.