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Missing Memories

Are you struggling to remember specific details about your life? Your problem may be sleep-related.

More than 936 million people are affected by the sleep breathing disorder obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) worldwide. In addition to suffering from an increased risk of high blood pressure, obesity and chronic health issues such as diabetes and heart problems, many people with OSA also experience memory problems and, subsequently, depression.

A study published in 2019 by RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, builds on previously known links between depression and memory.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious health condition that occurs when an obstruction to the airflow into the longs happens during sleep.

"This obstruction is typically the tongue or the muscles of the throat," said Dr. David Buck, a Seattle dentist.

The RMIT study analyzed autobiographical memory in individuals with untreated OSA and found they had difficulty recalling specific details about their lives.

This situation could lead to depression, according to the study authors.

The study authors believe that sleep apnea potentially impairs the brain's ability to consolidate specific types of life memories, which in turn causes frustration and sadness.

The researchers compared 44 adults with untreated OSA to 44 individuals without the condition, examining their ability to remember specific autobiographical memories from childhood, early adult life and recent years.

They found that people with OSA had much higher "overgeneral" memory - 52.3 percent - compared with 18.9 percent of the control group participants. Overgeneral memory refers to a patient's difficulty retrieving specific autobiographical memories. The OSA patients in the study struggled to recall specifics.

The researchers also looked at the ability to recall semantic memories, such as facts and concepts from personal history, like your first teacher's name or the name of your first pet, and episodic memory, which includes events or episodes, like your first day of high school or when you got married.

The researchers found that although people with OSA struggled with recalling semantic memory, their episodic memory was intact. This is likely due to fragmented sleeping patterns, as previous studies have shown that quality sleep is essential for the consolidation of autobiographical semantic memory.

In both groups of participants, being older was linked to having better overgeneral autobiographical memory, but higher depression meant having worse semantic memory.

Beyond anecdotal evidence, the brain scans of people living with sleep apnea reveal a significant loss of gray matter in regions that overlap the area of the brain where the autobiographical memories are made. OSA can contribute to loss of oxygen to the brain and other vital organs, Buck said.

"When the airway becomes blocked off by muscles of the throat or the tongue falling into the airway and breathing stops, it can last from 10 seconds to up to one minute," Buck said.

Source: RMIT University. "Sleep apnea creates gaps in life memories: People with sleep apnea struggle to remember details of memories from their own lives, putting them at risk of depression." ScienceDaily, 31 January 2019.

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