Brain Damage Severe in Women Than Men With Sleep Apnea

First Posted: Dec 04, 2012 05:56 AM EST

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person's breathing is interrupted during sleep. If this disorder is untreated, it can cause brain damage due to interrupted oxygen supply.

 In most cases the sleeper is unaware of these breath stoppages because they don't trigger a full awakening.  It affects more than 18 million Americans, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

According to the UCLA School of Nursing, women suffering from sleep apnea are  prone to a higher degree of brain damage than men with the disorder.

This is the first study of its kind as a previous study conducted 10 years ago by the UCLA research team showed that men with obstructive sleep apnea suffer damage to their brain cells.

This latest study, "Sex Differences in White Matter Alterations Accompanying Obstructive Sleep Apnea," the researchers focused on the patients who were diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea at the UCLA Sleep Laboratory.

The researchers then compared the white matter that is the nerve fibers of the patients to the fibers of individuals without sleep problems in an attempt to detect the difference in brain damage between men and women with 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," said chief investigator Paul Macey, assistant professor and associate dean of information technology and innovations at the UCLA School of Nursing. "This study revealed that, in fact, women are more affected by sleep apnea than are men and those women with obstructive sleep apnea have more severe brain damage than men suffering from a similar condition."

The researchers noticed that women were impacted in the front region of the brain that is involved in decision-making and mood regulation namely cingulum bundle and the anterior cingulate cortex. Apart from this, women also displayed higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms.

"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.

Macey added that the next step is for researchers to "untangle the timing of the brain changes and find out if treating sleep apnea can help the brain."

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

The findings are reported in the December issue of the peer-reviewed journal Sleep.

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