Most discussions of sleep apnea are primarily centered around men — a slant that is rooted in statistics, considering that twice as many men suffer from obstructive sleep apnea as women. But while it’s true that men are more likely to experience sleep apnea, this fact can prevent women from getting diagnosed. And without diagnosis, women with sleep apnea can’t get the treatment they need.
Sleep apnea is more serious than just snoring. In fact, studies show that people with severe untreated sleep apnea may be up to three times more likely to die prematurely than those without it. That’s why it’s so important that men and women both be part of the conversation around how sleep apnea is diagnosed, researched, and treated.
A new study from researchers from the UCLA School of Nursing has identified sex-linked differences in how sleep apnea impacts the brain. In the study, the researchers analyzed brain scans and clinical records for men and women diagnosed with mild to severe sleep apnea. What they found was striking: Women with sleep apnea were more likely to experience thinning of the brain’s cerebral cortex, particularly in the superior frontal lobe, than men with sleep apnea, or people without sleep apnea.
The researchers believe this might help explain why women with sleep apnea tend to suffer greater cognitive deficits than men with the disease. This cortical thinning may also impair the autonomic nervous system, which is the system responsible for involuntary bodily functions, like digestion, the heartbeat, and breathing.
Despite dialogue on the subject of sex-linked differences in sleep apnea symptoms and impacts, there are very few studies into the actual distinctions between men and women’s experiences with sleep apnea. This study is significant because it offers hard data to encourage more research and different approaches to treatment.
If untreated, sleep apnea can have deadly risks, regardless of the your gender. That’s why it’s so important that people who experience common symptoms of sleep apnea, like snoring, daytime fatigue, and focus or memory problems, speak to their doctor and get a diagnosis, so they can begin to pursue treatment.
The standard treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is CPAP, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure. This machine connects to a mask that the patient wears while they sleep, and prevents the airway from closing by creating air pressure in the throat. Unfortunately, many people find CPAP difficult to use consistently thanks to its many inconveniences. Side effects from insomnia to sore throat to nightmares can make some sleep apnea patients seek other treatments.
For those patients, oral appliance therapy could be the answer. A dentist trained in oral appliance therapy,can provide you with a custom-crafted oral appliance, somewhat like a mouth guard, that is worn during sleep. This oral appliance repositions the jaw to prevent the airway from closing. It’s effective at treating obstructive sleep apnea, and many patients find it more comfortable than using a CPAP machine.