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The Effect of Sleep Apnea on Brain Health

The Effect of Sleep Apnea on Brain Health

It is widely known these days that obstructive sleep apnea can present a wide range of dangerous complications for someone’s health. Now, there is also mounting research that the condition has negative impacts on brain structure and function.

Obstructive sleep apnea has been connected to varying medical problems including high blood pressure, heart disease and type II diabetes. It has also been shown to put people at greater risk for heart attacks and stroke. But how does sleep apnea affect the brain?

There is evidence that sleep apnea causes difficulty with cognitive functions, like memory, reasoning, reacting and controlling emotions. Recent research has also shown that it may actually change the shape of the brain. The good news is that the negative health effects of sleep apnea can be reversed with treatment.

How Sleep Apnea May Damage Brain Function

Those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea often struggle with symptoms like difficulty concentrating, remembering things, making decisions and reacting to situations. People may also experience mood changes associated with sleep apnea, such as irritability, increased stress, anxiety and depression.

Memory Loss

Chronic sleep deprivation robs the brain of the restorative rest it needs to function well. Sleep apnea disrupts the natural stages of sleep by causing people to wake up multiple times throughout the night. Because the brain organizes itself and converts short-term memories to long-term memories while the body rests, there is strong reason to believe that these frequent disruptions contribute to memory loss. Recently, scientists have also been exploring the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and the impact of sleep apnea.

Decreased Reasoning Skills

Sleep is important to brain health and is key to learning and recalling information. The lack of sleep caused by OSA seems to frequently cause problems with attention and concentration. Those who suffer from the condition often say that they have difficulty focusing at work or school, being creative, solving problems and making decisions.

Slower Reaction Time

Some experts have compared the effect of sleep apnea on the brain to the effect of drinking alcohol. Studies have shown that people with mild to moderate sleep deprivation have slow reaction time, similar to that of legally drunk drivers. This type of severe fatigue can be extremely dangerous when someone is behind the wheel of a car or operating heavy machinery.

Difficulty Regulating Mood

Clinicians have noticed a higher risk for depression, anxiety and stress that often comes with sleep problems like OSA. New research has shown that people with sleep apnea have lower levels of GABA, a chemical in the brain. Among other things, this chemical works to regulate emotions and help the person to remain calm. At the same time, scientists have also found higher levels of another chemical known as glutamate which increases stress. The levels of these two chemicals in the brain may explain the occurrence of mood swings and irritability that many experience.

How Sleep Apnea May Change the Shape of the Brain

When the brain is regularly starved of oxygen, as it is during periods of apnea, it seems to actually change some parts of the brain. Scientists studying OSA recently published articles stating that adult patients with sleep apnea showed reduced concentrations of gray matter in the cerebral area which is responsible for processing information. Their current hypothesis is that this measurable, physical difference is responsible for decreased cognitive performance and memory.

How Brain Damage Caused by Sleep Apnea Can Be Reversed

There is good news from all this research as well. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the negative effect that OSA may have on the brain can actually be stopped and reversed. With proper treatment, the brain has proved to be quite resilient. CPAP therapy has been shown to effectively treat obstructive sleep apnea. And, over the course of one year, CPAP therapy helped to reverse visible damage to the brain and significantly improve nearly all the symptoms related to cognitive ability and mood.

How Treatment for Sleep Apnea Effects Other Symptoms

Those who have used CPAP therapy to treat OSA also note a significant decrease in fatigue and an increase in the amount of energy they have throughout the day. After just a few weeks of therapy, and ongoing sleep coaching to help adhere to proper usage, the symptom of tiredness was greatly improved for most.

Find out more about the clinical sleep evaluation process and in-home sleep testing. If you are experiencing symptoms related to obstructive sleep apnea, talk with your doctor.

Take Charge of Your Health

If you are concerned about your sleep quality, are experiencing daytime grogginess or cognitive problems, it is time to take control of your health. Ask your physician for a referral for an overnight sleep evaluation. Contact Sleep Health Solutions today at (330) 923-0228 for more information or a consultation.

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