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  • Posted May 2, 2024

Sleep Apnea Linked With Late-Life Epilepsy

Add one more damaging consequence of sleep apnea to the list: New research suggests it's related to late-life epilepsy.

Late-onset epilepsy is defined as seizures that tend to begin only after the age of 60.

The condition might be related to underlying heart or brain illnesses, noted study co-author Dr. Rebecca Gottesman, chief of the Stroke Branch at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

“Compared to other age groups, older adults have the highest incidence of new cases of epilepsy -- up to half of which have no clear cause," Gottesman noted in a NINDS news release.

Links between sleep apnea and poor brain health have long been observed, but ties between apnea and epilepsy specifically are still "not well understood," she added.

To try and learn more, Gottesman and colleagues perused data from more than 1,300 people enrolled in a study of sleep-disordered breathing and heart disease.

The link between epilepsy and the breathing disorders of sleep apnea was strong: "People whose oxygen saturation fell below 80% during sleep, a condition known as nocturnal hypoxia, were three times more likely to develop late-onset epilepsy compared to those who did not have similarly low oxygen levels," the NIH noted.

People with any form of sleep apnea in later life were also twice as likely to be diagnosed with late-onset epilepsy, compared to folks without such histories, the study found.

The study suggests that late-onset epilepsy might join other brain conditions, such as stroke and dementia, that appear to be more common among people with sleep apnea, the researchers said.

Could getting sleep apnea under control (with, for example, use of a CPAP machine) help prevent late-onset epilepsy?

The study was not designed to answer that question, but it's an intriguing thought, said lead author Dr. Christopher Carosella.

“Discovering a reversible cause for the development of any type of idiopathic epilepsy is an aspirational goal for epilepsy researchers or clinicians,” said Carosella, an assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “We hope this study might be a small first step in that direction and also an encouragement to evaluate and treat sleep disorders in patients with epilepsy.”

The study was published in preview form last year in the journal Sleep; the final version was published in the journal in April.

More information

THere's more on spotting and treating sleep apnea at the Mayo Clinic.

SOURCE: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, news release, April 30, 2024

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