Sleep Apnea and Women Brain Damage

Women With Sleep Apnea Have Higher Degree of Brain Damage Than Men, Study Shows

A first-of-its-kind study into sleep apnea has shown that women suffering from sleep apnea have, on the whole, a higher degree of brain damage than men with the disorder. The findings were presented last December 2012 by researchers at the UCLA School of Nursing.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is repeatedly interrupted, sometimes hundreds of times, by obstructions in the air passage during sleep. Each time an obstruction occurs, the oxygen level in the blood drops, eventually resulting in damage to many cells in the body. If left untreated, it can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, diabetes, depression and other serious health problems.

Approximately 10 years ago, this UCLA research team was the first to show that men with obstructive sleep apnea have damage to their brain cells.

For this latest, multi-year study, “Sex Differences in White Matter Alterations Accompanying Obstructive Sleep Apnea,” the researchers looked compared how sleep apnea adversely affected the brains of different groups of men and women. They compared the nerve fibers in these patients’ brains — known as white matter — to fibers of individuals without sleep problems and focused on unearthing the difference in brain damage between men and women with sleep apnea.

There are many brain studies done on sleep apnea and how they affect people’s brains. But this was the first study that showed obstructive sleep apnea affects women very differently than men.

Chief investigator Paul Macey, assistant professor and associate dean of information technology and innovations at the UCLA School of Nursing said, “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.”

In particular, the study found that women were impacted in the cingulum bundle and the anterior cingulate cortex, areas in the front of the brain involved in decision-making and mood regulation. The women with sleep apnea also showed higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms, 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.

Co-investigators on the study included Rajesh Kumar, Ronald Harper and Dr. Frisca Yan-Go of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute and the departments of neurobiology and neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and Mary Woo of the UCLA School of Nursing. All of the work for the study was performed at UCLA, with financial support provided by a grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research.