Sleep apnea is characterized by transient hypoxemias which are thought to affect mental functioning. Accordingly, speculation and research have focussed on relationships between sleep apnea and dementia. We studied 235 nursing home (ie institutionalized) patients (152 women with a median age of 83.5; 83 men with a median age of 79.7) with portable sleep recording equipment. The Mattis Dementia Rating Scale and the Geriatric Depression Scale were given to each. Seventy percent of the patients had five or more respiratory disturbances per hour of sleep and 96 percent showed some dementia. Sleep apnea was significantly correlated with all subscales on the dementia rating scale. There were trivial differences in dementia ratings between those with mild-moderate apnea and those with no apnea. There were significant differences, however, between the latter two groups and those with severe apnea. In particular, items reflecting attention, initiation and perseveration, conceptualization, and memory tasks on the DRS distinguished between those with and without severe sleep apnea. Among those patients with no depression, all patients with severe sleep apnea were also severely demented. Our data suggest that there is a strong relationship between dementia and sleep apnea when the sleep apnea and dementia are severe. Although causality cannot be inferred from associations, our hypothesis for study is that sleep apnea causes deficits in brain function, possibly due to global effects rather than any particular cortical or subcortical structure.