George Mason University

News at Mason

Researcher Investigates Link Between Sleep Apnea and Mental Decline

January 26, 2012

By Lisa M. Gerry


Kathy Richards

More than half of people with Alzheimer’s disease also suffer from some form of sleep apnea, a condition in which a person pauses in breathing during sleep. Nationally renowned sleep and geriatric researcher Kathy Richards is trying to figure out the connection.

Richards is in the beginning stages of a study, for which the National Institute on Aging has granted $1.9 million, to investigate whether the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea delays cognitive decline in people with mild cognitive impairment.

“For the last 20 years, we’ve focused on the basic science of the cells to try to find a cure [for Alzheimer’s]. And, while we’ve begun to understand a lot about the disease, we do not yet have a cure,” says Richards, who is also assistant dean for the PhD program in Mason’s School of Nursing.

She adds: “I believe that where we need more research is in examining other factors — like co-occurring diseases and environmental exposures — that might interact with a person’s genetics to accelerate the course of Alzheimer’s disease.”

In past research, Richards has used polysomnography to study sleep using brain waves, breathing and muscle activity on several hundred patients with Alzheimer’s.

“We noticed that up to 60 to 65 percent of Alzheimer’s patients also have the breathing disorder, obstructive sleep apnea,” says Richards. “So we created a model of why that might be, and the interaction between the two diseases, and there is some indication that there are some genetic similarities.”

Because patients who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea have lower blood oxygen levels during sleep, there is the potential that they might suffer mini strokes in their sleep. Treatment for sleep apnea involves sleeping with a continuous positive airway pressure device over the nose to open the airways. While treating sleep apnea might improve the cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, there is little evidence and even less understanding of shared mechanisms between Alzheimer’s disease and obstructive sleep apnea.

“I came up with this idea to conduct a randomized controlled clinical trial,” Richards says. “The hypothesis is that by treating sleep apnea in a patient with mild cognitive impairment, it will delay their memory loss over time.”

For the study, which will be conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, Abington Memorial Hospital in Pennsylvania and Mason, Richards will also examine genetic and structural changes in the brain using neuroimaging to determine similarities between sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s disease.

Richards came to Mason from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was the director of the Hartford Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence and Center for Integrative Science in Aging and Ralston House Endowed Term Chair in Gerontological Nursing.

Before her tenure there, she spent 12 years at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where she was the Alice Sun Professor of Nursing and the director of the National Institutes of Health-funded Tailored Biobehavioral Interventions Research Center. She has also served as the associate director of the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center at the Central Arkansas Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“My passion,” says Richards, “is to try my best to make a difference for people with Alzheimer’s disease.”