Common treatment for sleep apnea also slows the aging process

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition where breathing stops repeatedly during sleep, not only disrupts one’s peaceful slumber but also has links to a host of health issues including hypertension, heart failure, and even diabetes. Symptoms such as fatigue, daytime drowsiness, and memory lapses can severely hamper an individual’s quality of life. However, a new ray of hope has emerged as Brazilian researchers have found that a common sleep apnea treatment can combat premature cell aging.

A study conducted at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) delves deep into the effects of OSA on telomeres – DNA structures responsible for preserving genetic data within our cells. As we age, these telomeres shorten, leading to cell aging. OSA has been identified as a culprit in speeding up this process.

The good news comes in the form of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), a therapy method where air is pushed into the lungs, ensuring continuous breathing during sleep.

“Telomere shortening is inevitable because it’s associated with aging, inflammation and oxidative stress, but OSA accelerates it and we found that CPAP attenuated this acceleration after three and six months,” says study first author Priscila Farias Tempaku, a researcher in sleep biology at UNIFESP’s Department of Psychobiology, in a media release.

Researchers followed 46 male participants over six months. Each person, between the ages of 50 and 60, had moderate to severe OSA. Half of them underwent CPAP therapy, while the other half used a placebo treatment. Monthly check-ups and blood tests helped the team monitor the telomere lengths and other vital markers.

CPAP breathing sleep COVID-19
CPAP treatment, which is often used at home to help people with sleep problems, helps to keep the lungs open and makes breathing easier. (Credit: Lancaster University)

A key finding from this research was the identification of inflammation, specifically through the presence of a protein called tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), as a significant contributor to accelerated telomere shortening.

“In the placebo group, TNF-α influenced telomere length, whereas the association wasn’t observed in the CPAP group. This shows that in addition to its already recognized importance in mitigating cardiovascular and metabolic risk, CPAP also reduces inflammation and therefore attenuates telomere shortening,” explains Tempaku.

Highlighting the gravity of sleep’s role in the aging process, study senior author Sergio Tufik emphasized the benefits of CPAP.

“The results underscore the criticality of sleep as a protective factor in aging and a risk factor in patients with alterations. This is an excellent incentive since most people are reluctant to use CPAP,” notes Tufik, head of UNIFESP’s Sleep Institute.

The increasing cases of OSA, often linked to obesity, is a growing concern. In fact, according to the Brazilian Bariatric and Metabolic Surgery Society, 70 percent of obese individuals suffer from sleep-related ailments, with the number soaring to 80 percent for those with morbid obesity.

For those suspecting they might have OSA, doctors recommend undergoing a polysomnography test, or sleep study. Along with CPAP, suggested treatments often include lifestyle modifications like shedding excess weight and avoiding alcohol before bedtime.

The study is published in the journal Sleep.

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