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How Does Sleep Apnea Affect the Brain?
According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, approximately 25 million Americans have some form of obstructive sleep apnea, which is a chronic disease that involves frequent pauses in a person's breathing during sleep. Most health warnings about this condition focus on how it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, but apnea can also negatively impact brain function.
How sleep apnea affects the brain
People with apnea often experience symptoms such as daytime drowsiness, shortened attention span, moodiness, depression, anxiety and reduced short term memory recall. Research has shown that the disease may also have a long term impact on the brain.
Physical changes in the brain
Sleep apnea can change the shape of the brain over time. Because people with apnea stop breathing during sleep, the brain is temporarily deprived of oxygen, which can result in brain damage. A study conducted by the UCLA School of Nursing found decreased amounts of both gray and white matter in subjects with apnea when compared to similar subjects without it. The study also found changes in the levels of neurotransmitters that affect thinking and physical functions, such as blood pressure and perspiration. Seung Bong Hong of the Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine in Seoul, South Korea, concluded that decreased sleep quality and brain damage could lead to poor memory, emotional problems and decreased cognitive functioning.
Memory loss and cognitive impairment
Research has shown that sleep apnea may make it more difficult for short-term memories to be stored as long-term memories. An important part of the long-term memory creation process occurs during sleep. Because apnea disrupts sleep, it also disrupts this function, which can lead to memory loss. A study by New York University researchers found that subjects with sleep apnea may experience mild cognitive impairment as much as 10 years earlier than subjects without sleep disorders. The study also indicated that the disease might lead to earlier onset of Alzheimer's disease in some people with the condition.
Treatment may reverse the damage
The good news is that studies, such as the one conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, have found that continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment can reverse the damage done and restore normal function to the brain. Initial gains were found to be small, but 12 months of CPAP therapy was found to fully restore brain function in many subjects and produce improvements in cognitive tests, alertness and quality of life. Additionally, studies have found that people who have received treatment for apnea experience mild cognitive decline, on average, 10 years later than people who do not receive treatment.
Untreated sleep apnea can negatively affect both the physical and mental health of an individual. Snoring, choking sounds while asleep and daytime drowsiness may be signs of undiagnosed sleep apnea. Because treatment can reverse brain damage caused by the lack of airflow and prevent further damage, it is important for people experiencing the symptoms of sleep apnea to consult a doctor for testing and diagnosis.
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