"We do not know if these people will develop Alzheimer's in the future, and we don't know how much risk they have," he said. "In the future, we might able to predict the risk."
Although excess weight raises the risk of sleep apnea, the obese participants with breathing problems didn't appear to have as much of an extra risk of Alzheimer's. There's another twist, Osorio said: For reasons that are unclear, being slightly overweight seemed to actually lower the risk of Alzheimer's.
So what's going on? The study doesn't give hints about which came first -- Alzheimer's or sleep breathing problems -- or whether something else, such as aging, might be causing both.
Another expert said it's clear that thinking skills may be impaired in patients with sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. "[But] the mechanisms of this are not well understood," said Dr. Brad Dickerson, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
As for the study, Dickerson said its findings are intriguing. However, he said, "these findings are very preliminary, and need to be further studied ... in order to make sure they are consistent and to better understand their implications."
The next step, Osorio said, is to launch a study of older people with sleep breathing problems and monitor them over time to see if they're less likely to develop Alzheimer's after getting treatment to improve their breathing.
The study is scheduled to be presented Sunday at an American Thoracic Society conference in Philadelphia. Findings presented at medical meetings typically are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
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