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People with obstructive sleep apnea experience repeated breathing interruptions while they sleep. Left untreated, sleep apnea may lead to serious health problems such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, diabetes and depression.
About 10 years ago, a team at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that men with sleep apnea have damage to their brain cells. In this new study of 80 participants, the same team compared the brains of men and women with and without sleep apnea.
"While there are a great many brain studies done on sleep apnea and the impact on one's health, they have typically focused on men or combined groups of men and women, but we know that obstructive sleep apnea affects women very differently than men," chief investigator Paul Macey, associate dean of information technology and innovations at the UCLA School of Nursing, said in a university news release.
"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," Macey said.
In particular, brain damage in women with obstructive sleep apnea affected two areas in the front of the brain involved in decision-making and mood regulation. Women with sleep apnea also had higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms, according to the study in the December issue of the journal Sleep.
"This tells us that doctors should consider that the sleep disorder may be more problematic and therefore need earlier treatment in women than men," Macey said.
The next step is to learn more about the timing of brain changes in people with obstructive sleep apnea, and to determine whether treating the disorder can help the brain.
"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," Macey said.
While the study found an association between sleep apnea and brain damage, it did not prove cause-and-effect.
-- Robert Preidt
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