Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the collective term for a group of lung conditions that cause long term breathing difficulties. It is a common condition affecting mainly middle-aged or older adults who smoke, with symptoms including breathlessness and a chesty ‘smokers’ cough. Individuals with COPD are at higher risk of dementia – one current theory suggests that this is due to lower brain oxygen levels as a result of problems with blood supply from blood vessels in the brain. In line with this theory, some studies have reported that giving COPD patients additional oxygen reduced their risk of developing dementia. However, until now, the mechanisms underlying this positive effect had not been fully investigated.
The research team found that blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain was significantly increased during reading. This was due to blood vessels in the brain becoming dilated in response to the greater oxygen demand when the brain was active. It can thus be concluded that when COPD patients receive additional oxygen it improves the function of blood vessels in their brain.
This study showed that providing extra oxygen improves the function of blood vessels in the brain by matching blood supply to the demands of the brain activity. However, COPD patients typically use this extra oxygen therapy throughout the day and for long periods of time, potentially years. This study does not indicate the influence of long term oxygen therapy on the function of blood vessels in the brain. Despite these potential limitations, this work has set the foundation for the researchers to investigate the biological systems that control oxygen delivery to the brain.
For COPD patients and others that use supplemental oxygen to help them to breathe, quitting smoking is hugely important to stop further lung damage, help slow the disease down and reduces the danger of smoking near oxygen cylinders. 2016 is going to be the year to stop smoking as part of a new campaign to try and combat lung disease. However if you stop smoking it is not only your lungs that you will help but your brain will benefit too.
It’s never too late to quit, even if you’re in your 70’s, there is still a chance for a noticeable recovery. For light smokers the damage can be reversed in a few weeks and for heavier long-term smokers it may take anywhere up to 25years for full recovery but every little helps.
The cerebral cortex, which is responsible for memory, attention, awareness and language naturally thins with age but this process is hugely accelerated by smoking. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh found that even though smoking thins the outer layer of the brain and increases the risk of memory problems and dementia, it is reversible. The damage that cigarettes cause to the brain can start reversing as soon as you give up the habit. Even when quitting later in life there is still a chance of reversing the harmful damage done to your brain.
In the study the thickness of the cerebral cortex was measured and important thinking skills were tested on smokers, non-smokers and ex-smokers. Those who had never smoked tended to have a thicker cortex than the smokers but ex-smokers also had a thicker cortex than those who had continued with the habit. Also more importantly those who had kicked the habit some time ago seemed to have a thicker cortex than more recent quitters, showing that there had been continuous recovery.
Professor James Goodwin from AgeUK talks about how we all know that smoking is bad for our heart and lungs but it is also important that we know it is also bad for our brain. Avoiding smoking offers the best protection against the risk of brain decline, dementia and other cognitive disease but this study gives smokers a new hope that by quitting smoking even later in life can still allow our bodies to start to heal itself.
“With research suggesting that older people’s fear of developing dementia outweighs that of cancer, it is important we inform people about the simple steps they can take to safeguard against this horrible and distressing disease.”
COPD patients already have many health issues related to their condition but the fear of cancer and dementia adding to them is concerning for patients. Knowing that by quitting smoking you can help to reverse damage to your brain, on top of preventing further damage to your heart and lungs, reduce the risk of combustion with oxygen cylinders and concentrators and halting progression of the respiratory disease you’re suffering from is a huge incentive for people to encourage them to give up smoking.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, which is a set of symptoms that include memory loss and problems with thinking, problem-solving and language. It is a physical disease that affects the brain and proteins build up in the brain forming ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’ around the nerves. Connection is then lost between the nerves cells and leads to the death of the nerve cells and loss of brain tissue. Patients with Alzheimers also have a shortage of important chemicals that help to transmit signals around the brain. The disease is progressive and as more of the nerve cells die and brain tissue is lost, the more severe the symptoms.
Sleep apnoea is a condition where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep and interrupts normal breathing patterns. During an episode the lack of oxygen triggers your brain to pull you out of your deep sleep so that your airway reopens and you can breathe normally. After falling back into a deep sleep again further episodes can occur even as frequently as every few minutes. Most patients snore loudly and have laboured and noisy breathing and is often interrupted by gasping and snorting. This repeated sleep interruption can make patients feel extremely tired during the day and suffer from reduced mental ability. However unless a partner or family member notices your symptoms whilst you sleep you may not know that you suffer from this condition and many people go undiagnosed.
Recent studies have shown that sleep apnoea may quicken memory decline and bring forward the onset of memory impairment conditions like Alzheimers by 10 years. The development and progression of Alzheimers may also be speeded up by sleep apnoea as well. These studies also revealed however that sleep apnoea patients that were being treated with supplemental oxygen overnight delayed the onset of memory impairment problems by as much as 10 years. Patients with sleep apnoea who were being treated declined at the same rate as volunteers who did not have sleep apnoea showing that being treated by oxygen counteracted the harm being done by the condition. It appears that the frequent drops in oxygen levels during episodes of untreated sleep apnoea have a major impact upon memory impairment and can directly lead to the early development of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Also during sleep is when the brain has time to remove harmful waste products, if sleep is disturbed then there is an accumulation of harmful proteins that block nerve cell function. Certain parts of the brain are more sensitive to drops in oxygen levels than others; certain neurons in the hippocampus (where Alzheimer’s is thought to start) is especially sensitive to drops in oxygen and sleep apnoea may ‘stress’ these neurons out.
There are currently no medications that can prevent the progression of mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia so treating at-risk patients with CPAP (oxygen treatment for sleep apnoea) is a prevention method that is worth trialling and testing. Previous research has already shown that CPAP treatment and supplemental oxygen at night slows and improves cognitive impairment in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and increases brain tissue and now this more recent research backs up these findings. Hopefully soon there will be trials to prove whether supplemental oxygen at night could be the next new treatment for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients or even those who are at risk.
References: www.nbcnews.com, www.alzforum.org, www.alzheimers.org.uk and www.nhs.uk