Numerous studies conducted over the past decade suggest that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can have negative effects on the brain’s structure and function.
Restorative sleep is necessary for brain health. Sleep apnea deprives the brain of a full, healthy sleep cycle leading to symptoms like shortened attention span, irritability, fatigue and trouble with short-term memory. People suffering from sleep apnea also have trouble converting short-term memories into long-term memories.
Sleep apnea can affect the brain in more serious ways than just temporary symptoms. It can change the shape of the brain by significantly reducing both gray matter and white matter concentration in certain areas of the brain.
Researchers from New York University conducted a study of 2,500 people with Alzheimer’s disease. On average, they found that patients with breathing disorders were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment 10 years earlier than those without.
Symptoms of cognitive impairment are much more prominent in older adults, but sleep apnea also affects children’s developing brains.
Restoring the Damage
There is hope for patients living with sleep apnea. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy has been shown to reverse the damage caused by severe OSA. Improvements in the brain’s gray matter were seen after three months of therapy, but reversal of damage to white matter was only seen after 12 months of treatment.
Effective treatment can improve cognition, alertness, mood and overall quality of life. Therefore, the “Stop the Snore” campaign was developed through a collaboration of organizations like the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Sleep Research Society and CDC.
The campaign encourages people to consult a doctor if they are experiencing warning signs for sleep apnea. This includes snoring, gasping and irregular breathing while asleep.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a common condition that affects over 18 million Americans, but many who suffer from the disease don’t know the far-reaching health implications that can result. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea, it’s recommended that you consult a medical professional.