Alternatives to medicine that treat snoring, like dental appliances, could help individuals sleep better and improve their cognitive function, slowing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, according to new research published in Geriatrics.

The research team at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas sought to understand the relationship between breathing rate during sleep and cognitive function, and how a snoring intervention could affect brain health.

Breathing patterns might predispose individuals to having dementia

The team’s pilot study included 18 individuals aged 55-85 with a history of snoring. About one third of participants had mild cognitive impairment and another third had Alzheimer’s disease.

Participants slept at home while a portable recorder collected data on their breathing, heart rate and snoring. The researchers then assessed the participant’s memory, executive function and attention.

They found that the maximum breathing rate during uninterrupted periods of sleep can differentiate healthy individuals from individuals with either Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment.

Co-author of the study, Emet Schneiderman, said: “We saw three distinct patterns amongst the groups of people, meaning we can look for a breathing pattern that might predispose individuals to having dementia.”

The findings suggest that better sleep improves cognition

The team also looked at whether an oral appliance which prevents snoring affects breathing rate and cognitive function. The participants wore the device at night for four weeks and found that snoring decreased.

After the intervention period, cognitive function – especially in the domain of memory – no longer differed between healthy individuals and individuals with mild cognitive impairment. This suggests better sleep improves cognition in individuals with mild cognitive impairment.

Namrata Das, co-author and research neuroscientist in Alzheimer's disease, said: “If we can make significant changes for individuals with mild cognitive impairment, we can slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Oral appliances could have a wide range of applications

Although the team did not notice an overall difference in the cognitive function of participants with Alzheimer’s disease, researchers are hopeful that the intervention could work.

Unlike sleep medications which give individuals the impression that they’ve slept well, snoring devices allow the brain to enter a deep phase of sleep, which is essential for the housekeeping process to rid the body of toxins.

Das added: “Oral appliances could have a wide range of applications since sleep is affected by many different things across many different age groups.

“Maybe appliances could help individuals sleep better, reducing mental health symptoms caused by poor sleep before they get serious decline in neurocognitive symptoms.”