Brain Damage More Severe in Women Than Men With Sleep Apnea

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A team of California researchers has found that a higher degree of brain damage is linked to women with sleep apnea than to men with the condition. Most prior studies concentrated on the effect of sleep apnea on males.

Researchers from the UCLA School of Nursing worked under a grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research. A decade earlier, they were the first group to show that men with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) experience damage to brain cells, according to ScienceDaily.

Sleep apnea is emerging as one of the most important U.S. health problems. The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute reports that between 2000 and 2009, the number of visits to physician offices for this disorder skyrocketed, from 2 million to 3.7 million.

Experts label sleep apnea a potentially serious disorder. It's characterized by breathing that repeatedly stops and starts. In some patients, breathing continues but becomes shallow. The most publicized symptoms are snoring loudly and feeling tired even after sleeping for a full night.

The Mayo Clinic says some patients also awaken feeling short of breath or with a dry mouth or sore throat. Morning headaches, attention problems, and difficulty staying asleep are all common symptoms.

There are two primary types of the disorder. Obstructive sleep apnea is the more common. It's caused by a mechanical problem that occurs when throat muscles relax. The second, central sleep apnea, develops when the brain fails to send the correct signals to muscles in charge of breathing.

Interrupted breathing causes the level of oxygen in the bloodstream to plummet, resulting in cellular damage throughout the body. Without treatment, high blood pressure, heart failure, diabetes, stroke, depression, and a host of other serious conditions can develop.

During their multi-year study, the UCLA researchers examined the white matter of the brains of patients known to have OSA. When they compared it with that of people without sleep apnea, the findings were startling.

Overall, women were significantly more affected by sleep apnea than men were. Females with OSA showed more severe brain damage than men with a similar condition. The most significant differences occurred in the cingulum bundle and the anterior cingulated cortex, two parts of the brain associated with mood regulation and decision making. These women also showed higher levels of depression and anxiety.

The researchers did not determine whether brain damage was a result of sleep apnea or led to development of the sleep disorder. They did conclude that women need earlier treatment for sleep apnea than men do.

I have suffered from OSA for decades but don't actually stop breathing. Since I'm not a good candidate for an airway pressure device, my treatment has focused on losing weight and changing my sleep position. Based on what this study uncovered, however, I've decided to undergo new sleep studies and a reevaluation.

Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.

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