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Sleep Apnea Causes More Harm to Women's Brain Than Men's

Update Date: Dec 04, 2012 11:06 AM EST

A new study reveals that women who suffer from sleep apnea are at a higher risk of brain damage when compared to men who suffer from the same disorder.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition wherein the patients experience abnormal pauses in breathing or instances of abnormally low breathing during sleep.

According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, each pause in breathing, called an apnea, can typically last from a few seconds to minutes and can occur up to 30 times in an hour.

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Every time the amount of oxygen in the blood drops, it damages 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, Medical Xpress reports.

For the current study "Sex Differences in White Matter Alterations Accompanying Obstructive Sleep Apnea", researchers at the UCLA School of Nursing observed and studied patients with the disorder and compared their brain's white matter to those individuals without sleep problems. The researchers' focus was on finding out the differences between the brain damage caused by sleep apnea in men and women.

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

"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 revealed that women's brains got affected in areas concerning decision-making and mood regulation. Women with sleep apnea were also found to have higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms.

"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.

The researchers are now working towards finding the timing of the brain changes.

"What we don't yet know," he said, "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."

The findings are reported in the December issue of the peer-reviewed journal Sleep. 

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