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Sleep Apnea Impacts Brain Artery Function After Just 1 Month, Study Shows

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Sleep apnea has been linked with a whole host of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, depression and memory problems. And now, a new animal study shows how big of an effect sleep apnea has on the brain's arteries, which could put a person at risk for stroke.

The researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine induced obstructive sleep apnea in mice by actually closing their airways, thereby subjecting them to all the actual physical effects of sleep apnea.

In humans, obstructive sleep apnea occurs when a person stops breathing on and off during sleep. Symptoms include snoring, feeling sleepy during the day, waking with a dry mouth and having high blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic. Untreated, it can lead to heart problems and daytime fatigue.

For the study, the researchers induced sleep apnea 30 times an hour (each time took 10 seconds) in mice during their eight-hour sleep. They did this for up to a month-long period.

The researchers found that in just a month, the mice's "cerebral vessel dilatory function" decreased by as much as 22 percent -- meaning the brain's blood vessels don't work as well as they are supposed to, a potential risk factor for stroke.

"Only one month of moderate OSA produces altered cerebrovascular function which could result in a stroke," study researcher Randy Crossland said in a statement. This is "a finding that highlights the detrimental impact OSA can have on the body."

The research was presented at the Experimental Biology 2012 meeting in San Diego.

Recently, a study presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference showed that sleep apnea is linked with a symptomless form of stroke called silent stroke.

Researchers from Dresden University found that 91 percent of the patients in the study who have had a stroke, also had sleep apnea -- and these people were also at an increased risk for silent stroke.

Particularly, researchers found that having more than five episodes of sleep apnea in a night is linked with having silent stroke. More than a third of people who had the small brain lesions also had severe sleep apnea, and more than half of people who had a silent stroke also had sleep apnea.

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