Especially in the elderly, obstructive sleep apnea can sometimes masquerade as dementia. When a person has difficulty concentrating, focusing, and/or staying awake during the day, it can easily be interpreted as early signs of dementia.

Since many elderly individuals live alone, there’s no one to see, or hear, them sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition in which the air passage becomes blocked, floppy, or narrowed. As a result, the flow of air into the lungs pauses or decreases during sleep. An easily recognizable symptom of OSA is snoring and frequent waking during the night.

Frequent interruptions in breathing during sleep can reduce the amount of oxygen to the brain and prevent deep sleep. The resulting sleep deprivation can cause symptoms such as difficulty concentrating and sleepiness that appear like early dementia.

Elderly individuals may not notice or acknowledge a sleep issue, and it’s not until someone stays with them for the night that the underlying cause is discovered.

OSA is diagnosed through an overnight sleep test. Treatment includes lifestyle changes and a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which forces air into the airway.

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