We know that men and women experience sleep apnea differently. Subjective studies have shown that women report more daytime sleepiness and more cognitive problems. They are also more likely to report that they felt burdened by their symptoms.
For this study, researchers wanted to see the impact sleep apnea had on the brains of people with the condition. It is known that sleep apnea can damage the brain, just as it damages the heart, kidneys, and other organs. In fact, we’ve been able to track the damage in the past, and even show that treatment could reverse brain damage.
However, no one has been able to link the severity and type of damage to the sex of sleep apnea sufferers. Because of the reported differences in subjective impact, researchers felt this was an important gap in our understanding.
To test their theory, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brains of 12 women and 36 men who had been diagnosed with mild to severe obstructive sleep apnea, but were not receiving treatment. They also imaged the brains of 40 men and 22 women who had not been diagnosed with sleep apnea.
Researchers then compared the different brain scans to look specifically at changes in the cerebral cortex. They found that all sleep apnea sufferers had thinner areas in the cerebral cortex compared to controls. But they also found that women with sleep apnea experienced more areas of cortical thinning compared to controls and to men with sleep apnea.
Impact of Brain Changes
So what do these areas of thinning in the cerebral cortex mean in terms of true functional impact? The cerebral cortex is an essential region of the brain. It is intimately involved in everything we think of as the higher functions of the brain, including:
Damage to this vital brain area explains many of the cognitive effects we see in people with sleep apnea. They have memory problems. They have difficulty speaking, thinking, and maintaining focus and awareness. Damage to this brain area reinforces what we’ve already come to understand about women and sleep apnea. They may not have sleep apnea as often, but when they do, the impact is much more severe. This is true not just of brain damage, but also of heart risks.
Diagnosis and Treatment Are Critical
Many people with sleep apnea don’t know they have it, especially women who are less likely to suspect the condition. Their doctors are also less likely to make the connection with the sleep condition. That’s why it’s important for women to be made aware of their risks and bring up the condition with their doctors.
Then they need to find a comfortable, convenient sleep apnea treatment they will actually use. For many people, this means oral appliances and not CPAP.