HEALTHY LIVING
12/07/2012 08:26 am ET | Updated Dec 07, 2012

Women With Sleep Apnea Face More Severe Brain Damage Than Men: Study

Women who have sleep apnea experience more damage to their brain cells as a result of the condition than men with obstructive sleep apnea, according to a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Previous research had indicated that obstructive sleep apnea is linked with brain cell damage in men. The new findings, published in the journal SLEEP, show that women experience more damage than men to cells in the cingulum bundle and the anterior cingulate cortex brain regions, which are involved in the regulation of moods and decision-making.

"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," study researcher Paul Macey, an assistant professor and associate dean of information technology and innovations at the UCLA School of Nursing, said in a statement.

"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," Macey said.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition where a person stops breathing during sleep; it's commonly marked by snoring, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Anywhere from 4 to 9 percent of middle aged men experience obstructive sleep apnea, and 2 to 4 percent of middle aged women experience the condition, according to the American College of Physicians. However, as many as 90 percent of people with obstructive sleep apnea have not been diagnosed.

The new study included 80 people; 10 were women newly diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea who had not received treatment for their condition, 20 were men newly diagnosed who also hadn't received treatment, and 50 were healthy men and women with no diagnosis of sleep apnea.

Researchers analyzed the brain nerve fibers of the study participants to find differences in brain cell damage between those with sleep apnea and those without, as well as between men and women with the obstructive sleep apnea.

In addition to finding a higher severity of brain cell damage in the women with sleep apnea than the men, they also found that the women with the sleep condition had more symptoms of depression and anxiety than the men.

However, researchers cautioned more research is needed. "What we don't yet know 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," Macey said in the statement.

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