This Is Your Brain on Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea linked to worse damage in women's brains

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Sleep problems should be taken seriously because they can lead to so many other health conditions. But these disorders appear to act differently in women and in men.

A recent study found that nerve fiber damage in the brains of women with obstructive sleep apnea is worse than in men with obstructive sleep apnea.

During obstructive sleep apnea, a person stops breathing many times while asleep. This restricts how much oxygen reaches their brains.

Untreated sleep apnea increases the risk of many health conditions. These include high blood pressure, stroke, heart problems, diabetes, depression and other health issues.

"Seek treatment for your sleep apnea."

The study, led by Paul M. Macey, PhD, from the Brain Research Institute at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles, looked at how sleep apnea affects men's and women's brains.

The researchers looked at the brains of 80 individuals using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. They already knew from past research that untreated sleep apnea can cause damage to brain cells.

The 80 participants included 10 women and 20 men who had been recently diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea and had not yet been treated for it, as well as 20 women and 30 men who were healthy and without sleep apnea.

All the participants filled out questionnaires about their sleep quality, their daytime sleepiness and their symptoms of depression or anxiety.

The researchers specifically looked at nerve fibers in the participants' brains called "white matter."

The researchers found that the women with obstructive sleep apnea had more white matter damage in six different areas of their brains than the men with sleep apnea.

These differences did not show up in the brains of the healthy men and women.

Two of the areas where the higher damage occurred in women's brains included the parts of the brain related to decision-making and regulating moods.

This matched up with the results of the questionnaires on depression and anxiety. The women with sleep apnea reported more depression and anxiety symptoms than the men with sleep apnea reported.

"These female specific structural changes may contribute to or derive from neuropsychological and physiological symptom differences between sexes," the authors wrote.

"This study revealed that, in fact, women are more affected by sleep apnea than are men and that women with obstructive sleep apnea have more severe brain damage than men suffering from a similar condition," Dr. Macey said in a release about the study. "This tells us that doctors should consider that the sleep disorder may be more problematic and therefore need earlier treatment in women than men."

But the researchers need to do more work to understand the underlying causes of their findings.

"What we don't yet know is, did sleep apnea cause the brain damage, did the brain damage lead to the sleep disorders, or do the common comorbidities, such as depression, dementia or cardiovascular issues, cause the brain damage, which in turn leads to sleep apnea," Dr. Macey said.

Obstructive sleep apnea is most commonly treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which is delivered by a machine to a person's airways with a mask worn at night.

The machine requires a prescription and can cost anywhere from $150 to over $5,500. Most insurance plans will cover some or all of the expense of a CPAP machine and the mask, which ranges from $30 to $200.

The study was published in the December issue of the journal Sleep. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 27, 2012
Last Updated:
December 30, 2012