Sleep Apnea May Cause Cognitive Problems: Study

2 min read

April 13, 2023 – A small new study suggests that obstructive sleep apnea may cause problems with thinking skills. 

The study compared cognitive functions among men with sleep apnea with those of men who didn’t have the sleep disorder. Researchers found that those with sleep apnea were less able to concentrate, had a poorer memory, and had poorer social judgment.

Previously, trouble with brain functions like memory and concentration among people with sleep apnea were linked to also having another health issue such as obesity, high blood pressure, or type 2 diabetes.

People with the most severe sleep apnea had the poorest cognitive function. The study included 27 males with untreated obstructive sleep apnea who took part in sleep studies and cognitive testing at Kings College London in England. The men were otherwise healthy and ranged in age from 35 to 70 years old. The findings were published this month in Frontiers in Sleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea and results in blocked airflow into or out of the mouth or nose, even when someone is trying to breathe. As many as 18 million people in the U.S. may have sleep apnea, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, but it is more common among people who are obese.

The researchers said their study is the first to report sleep apnea’s impact on social cognition, which the American Psychological Association defines as people’s ability to “perceive, think about, interpret, categorize, and judge their own social behaviors and those of others.”

The authors also reported that the group of men with sleep apnea showed significant reductions in the following cognitive functions:

  • Sustained attention
  • Executive functions like behavior regulation and decision-making
  • Visual memory
  • Impulse control

“Our findings suggest that distinct OSA-driven processes, particularly when OSA is severe, may be sufficient for cognitive changes to occur as early as middle age, in otherwise healthy male individuals,” the authors of the study concluded.

Show Sources


Frontiers in Sleep: “Obstructive sleep apnea may directly cause early cognitive decline,” “Distinct cognitive changes in male patients with obstructive sleep apnoea without co-morbidities.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “The Dangers of Uncontrolled Sleep Apnea.”

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