Breathing problems during sleep could have a detrimental effect on brain function in middle-aged men, a study suggests. Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, causes loud snoring, restless sleep, daytime tiredness and prolonged headaches in the morning.
The condition occurs when throat muscles relax and block air flow to the lungs, causing sufferers to repeatedly stop breathing.
And researchers say those abnormal fluctuations in levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide and blood flow could alter structures in the brain.
They investigated the impact on brain health in 27 men, aged 35 to 70, who all had mild OSA.
A battery of cognitive checks and brain activity monitoring revealed they performed worse in tests of memory, thinking, attention and emotional recognition than people without the condition.
Study leader Dr Ivana Rosenzweig, of King’s College London’s Sleep and Brain Plasticity Centre, said: “We show poorer executive functioning and visuospatial memory and deficits in vigilance, sustained attention and psychomotor and impulse control in men with OSA.
“We also demonstrated for the first time that OSA can cause significant deficits in social cognition.”
Around 1.5 million adults are thought to have OSA, but up to 85 percent are undiagnosed, according to the British Lung Foundation.
Sufferers usually have other health conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, chronic inflammation or depression.
Poorer brain health had previously been blamed on these underlying conditions, but the men in the study were all otherwise healthy – suggesting a decline in brain function was caused by the OSA itself.
The study findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Sleep.
Sleep apnea can sometimes be treated with lifestyle changes such as losing weight and quitting smoking.
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