The British Lung Foundation, who provided the statistics on sleep apnoea, explained what the condition is. “Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is a sleep-related respiratory condition,” the charity began. The condition leads to “repeated temporary cessations of breathing because of a narrowing or closure of the upper airway during sleep”.
“Core symptoms of OSA include excessive daytime sleepiness [and] snoring,” the charity added.
Neuropsychiatrist Ivana Rosenzweig, from King’s College London, said men with OSA “show poorer executive functioning and visuospatial memory and deficits in vigilance”.
Additional issues can include problems with “sustained attention, and psychomotor and impulse control”.
In the new research she co-authored, Rosenzweig noted: “Most of these deficits had previously been ascribed to co-morbidities.
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“We demonstrated, for the first time, that OSA can cause significant deficits in social cognition.”
The research project involved 27 men, aged between 35 and 70, who had a new diagnosis of mild to severe OSA – and no co-morbidities.
Co-morbidities refer to other health conditions or diseases that may or may not be linked to OSA.
Another seven men (matched for age, body mass index, and education to the test group), who did not have OSA, were part of the control group.
In cognitive tests, the men with OSA scored lower than the control group in numerous categories.
The men who had OSA scored lower for sustained attention, executive functioning, short-term visual recognition memory, and social and emotional recognition.
As the participants had no other health conditions, which is considered “rare” for people who have OSA, the cognitive decline could be associated with the sleep disorder.
Previously, this mental deterioration had been attributed to other conditions, such as hypertension or type 2 diabetes.
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The researchers stated: “Our findings suggest that distinct, OSA-driven processes may be sufficient for cognitive changes to occur as early as in middle age, in otherwise healthy individuals.”
One theory, put forward by the research team, is that the sleep disorder interferes with how much oxygen gets to the brain cells.
OSA has also been linked to changes to blood flow in the brain, inflammation, and fragmented sleep.
Fragmented sleep, in itself, has also been associated with cognitive issues.
Rosenzweig added: “This complex interplay is still poorly understood, but it’s likely that these lead to widespread neuroanatomical and structural changes in the brain.”
And with that, there is an association with “functional cognitive and emotional deficits”.
The research has been published in the journal Frontiers in Sleep.