Women with sleep apnea tend to have more severe brain damage than men with the disorder, according to researchers at the UCLA School of Nursing.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder in which the flow of air pauses or decreases during sleep because the airway has become narrowed, blocked, or floppy. For some people this can occur hundreds of times in one night.
When breathing stops, oxygen levels in the blood drop, eventually causing damage to many cells in the body. If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, diabetes, depression and other serious health problems.
For the study, researchers observed patients diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea at the a sleep laboratory. They compared the nerve fibers in these patients’ brains — known as white matter — to the fibers of healthy people and focused on exposing any differences 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, Ph.D., an assistant professor.
“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.”
Specifically, the researchers discovered that women were impacted in the cingulum bundle and the anterior cingulate cortex — regions in the front of the brain associated with decision-making and mood regulation.
The women with sleep apnea also experienced more symptoms of depression and anxiety, the researchers said.
“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.
“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 comorbidities, such as depression, dementia or cardiovascular issues, cause the brain damage, which in turn leads to sleep apnea.”
The findings are reported in the peer-reviewed journal Sleep.
Source: UCLA School of Nursing