Can Sleep Apnea Cause Brain Damage?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can be a very frustrating condition. OSA impacts the amount of rest that we get on a nightly basis, it can contribute to other health issues such as heart disease, and it undoubtedly affects our quality of life. 

However, can sleep apnea cause brain damage? Could those who have yet to treat their symptoms be at a higher risk of being diagnosed with illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease? Before answering this important question, let’s first understand how sleep apnea impacts the brain. 

A Quick Overview of Sleep Apnea

OSA is a condition associated with interrupted breathing patterns during the night. Individuals may snore incessantly, suddenly wake up gasping for breath, and suffer from a chronic lack of sleep. OSA is primarily caused by a narrowing of the airways, making it much more difficult for the body to obtain the oxygen it requires. 

Many research articles emphasize treating the underlying symptoms. This is often accomplished with the help of a positive airway pressure (PAP) device (which we will discuss a bit later). However, what about the direct and indirect effects of sleep apnea on how the brain functions?

Is There a Relationship Between OSA and Brain Damage?

It is important to note that research is still ongoing when regarding the link between obstructive sleep apnea and cognitive functioning. Studies have nonetheless found some rather interesting correlations which will be discussed here.

The Role of the Blood-Brain Barrier

The blood-brain barrier provides protection from various threats such as viruses, chemicals and bacterial infections. Without its presence, the brain would be more susceptible to numerous risks. 

There is some evidence which suggests that long-term OSA may actually degrade this barrier. This could theoretically increase the chances of being diagnosed with serious conditions such as meningitis, stroke, and multiple sclerosis. 

Sleep Deprivation Over Time

This is perhaps the most well-known effect of OSA. There are certain portions of sleep (particularly the REM cycles associated with dreaming) thought to be vital in terms of their restorative benefits. Bouts of sleep apnea and irregular breathing pattern makes it much less likely that people get the proper amount of REM sleep. If left untreated, long-term cognitive effects such as memory loss may eventually be diagnosed. 


Hypoxaemia is clinically defined as a scenario when blood oxygen levels drop significantly for a considerable period of time. This is unhealthy for the body, as it requires oxygen to perform various autonomous activities while asleep. 

Hypoxaemia can also have a massive impact on how the brain functions. If the brain and the surrounding tissues are deprived of oxygen, physical damage can occur. The obvious danger here is that those who have been diagnosed with more severe forms of obstructive sleep apnea may be inadvertently degrading their cognitive abilities over time.

Has Physical Evidence of OSA-Related Damage Been Found?

One of the issues associated with the relationship between sleep apnea and cognitive dysfunction involves the fact that additional health conditions may be present. 

In other words, establishing a firm link has been challenging. 

The good news is that firm evidence is beginning to emerge thanks to advanced diagnostic techniques. One study found that untreated OSA led to a breakdown of a type of tissue within the brain known as white matter. White matter is partially responsible for transmitting electrical impulses from the brain to other portions of the body. 

Another rather interesting project was associated with how brains affected by sleep apnea functioned differently when compared to individuals who had no sleeping issues. They found that damage occurred in the same location associated with the onset of Alzheimer's disease. 

What is perhaps even more concerning is that this damage spread in a similar manner as the disease itself. It seems to be clear that OSA and cognitive functioning are related to one another.

Could You be Suffering from Sleep Apnea?

Some individuals have been dealing with sleep apnea for years without being aware of its presence. Whether you have noticed changes in your cognitive abilities -- or you are simply concerned about the amount of rest you are obtaining on a nightly basis – here are some common symptoms of OSA including:

  • Snoring for long periods of time
  • Waking up coughing, choking, or breathless
  • Drowsiness throughout the day
  • Headaches in the morning
  • A chronic dry mouth or sore throat

Speak with your doctor for advice and a diagnosis of your sleep problem. 

Preventive Techniques

One of the best ways to treat the symptoms of sleep apnea is to use a positive airway pressure device during the night. This device will help to ensure that your airways remain open so that the body obtains that oxygen that it needs to properly function. Many PAP devices are now equipped with customizable settings -- and the vast majority of users report a noticeable improvement in their symptoms. 

Treatment Options and Outlook

A final question still needs to be answered. Assuming that you have been diagnosed with OSA, is it possible to reverse any neurological damage that might have already occurred? 

Although more research needs to be carried out, the initial results look promising. For instance, one study found that CPAP devices can improve long-term memory and certain cognitive functions if used on a nightly basis. Others discovered that the amount of white matter increased after using a CPAP for 12 consecutive months. 

As always, it pays to adopt a preventive mindset. Speak with a specialist to learn more about your options. Modern technology has come a long way and effective solutions may be closer than you realize.