A small new study suggests that apnea may worsen brain health among middle-aged men without other major health problems. Image by Stefano Ferrario from Pixabay

Sleep apnea is an extremely unpleasant breathing disorder that is believed to deprive millions of Americans of sound, restful sleep.

Now, a small new study suggests that the disorder may also worsen brain health among middle-aged men without other major health problems.


This decline can manifest as significant memory loss, decreased impulse control, impaired spatial reasoning, and/or inability to focus and think clearly.

Sleep apnea is when your breathing stops and starts during sleep, due to partial or complete obstruction [blockage] Study author Dr Ivana Rosenzweig, Head of the Sleep and Brain Center at King’s College London, UK, explains:

She said previous research has consistently established any mental impairment noted among OSA patients “for diseases that present frequently with OSA, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other metabolic diseases.” .

“The results of our study suggest that the presence of obstructive sleep apnea may be sufficient for changes in thinking ability to occur early in midlife, even in healthy individuals,” Rosenzweig added.

The research team noted that between 15% and 30% of all men suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Meanwhile, 10% to 15% of women also have the disorder, although Rosenzweig notes that it’s less common among perimenopausal women than among their male peers. However, this gender gap evaporates after menopause.

For the study, the researchers decided to track the mental state of 27 male OSA patients who did not have any significant additional medical problems. No women were included in the analysis.

Their ages ranged from 35 to 70 years. 16 patients were diagnosed with mild sleep apnea and 11 with severe sleep apnea. None of them had a current smoking habit or a drinking problem, and none were obese.

The study authors conducted a set of what they described as “highly sensitive” thought-processing tests among a group of obstructive sleep apnea patients, as well as among a comparison group of seven men who did not have obstructive sleep apnea.

The result: Patients with mild or severe sleep apnea performed significantly worse on tests than men who did not have obstructive sleep apnea.

Specifically, OSA patients scored lower on visual short-term memory skills, the ability to stay alert, the ability to plan and make decisions, and the ability to “read” emotions and social situations.

According to the report, the more severe the sleep apnea, the worse the OSA patients did.

Rosenzweig emphasized that the investigation is a small “proof-of-concept” study, making it impossible to determine cause and effect.

“The study indicates that obstructive sleep apnea in itself is sufficient to begin altering thinking ability,” she added.

“This of course needs to be proven in much larger studies, which will follow patients for a longer period of time,” Rosenzweig said.

The results were published Thursday in the journal Frontiers in Sleep.

Percy Griffin is Director of Scientific Engagement at the Alzheimer’s Society. “It has been known for some time that sleep disturbances in general are associated with changes in cognition,” he said.

Because sleep apnea is known to disrupt oxygen flow and sleep quality, Griffin suggested it’s “unsurprising” that the disorder may increase the risk of thinking decline.

However, he cautioned that the study is “too preliminary and too small to make generalizations” to draw definitive conclusions about what is going on and what might be the best way to reduce the risk of thinking problems.

Dr. Andrew Varga, MD, a sleep medicine physician at the Mount Sinai Integrative Sleep Center in New York City, agrees.

He noted that his entire career has been spent studying the possible link between sleep apnea and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. So, to him, the idea that the two are related “makes sense.”

This is because all organs—including the brain—need oxygen to function, Varga explained, and one of the main characteristics of sleep apnea is “intermittent hypoxia, which means frequent drops in oxygen levels in the blood.”

However, the latest study was “very simple,” he noted, and did not include a follow-up evaluation.

“So, all you can really say from this is that sleep apnea probably results in worse results on these types of tests,” Varga said. “I think sleep apnea is a risk factor. But it’s a fairly large leap to draw that conclusion from this paper.”

more information

There is more about the potential link between sleep apnea and brain health at the Cleveland Clinic.

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