What are the Effects of Sleep Apnea on the Brain?

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Your problems with memory or concentration may not be due to aging but to lack of sleep. Poor sleep from sleep apnea impacts normal brain functions, affecting not only recall and focus but also emotions and even the shape of the brain itself.

Sleep Apnea

How Are Sleep Apnea And Brain Damage Related?

Sleep apnea occurs when the airway temporarily closes while you sleep, causing you to gasp for air in the middle of the night and disrupting normal REM sleep. Over time, these apneas reduce oxygen flow to the brain, leading to brain dysfunction on the most fundamental level, including memory loss.

In a study with patients with Alzheimer’s disease, it was found that those with breathing problems were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment an average of 10 years earlier than people without sleep breathing problems.1

Effects of Sleep Apnea on the Brain

Sleep Apnea Can Change the Shape of the Brain

Continual oxygen depletion during sleep starts to cause significant and measurable brain damage. Studies show that the brains of troubled sleepers were nearly 20% smaller than those without sleep issues.2 In addition, the effects of sleep apnea on the brain are worsened by daytime fatigue that results from poor sleep.

Sleep Apnea Changes How the Brain Works

Along with shape, brain function begins to change as well as lower oxygen levels compel the brain to adapt chemically. Gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA is a critical brain chemical for healthy brain function and communication between nerve cells. Sleep apnea reduces GABA, which can lead to anxiety mood disorders, and difficulty concentrating.

Can Sleep Apnea Cause Brain Damage?

Sleep apnea can affect brain function, including:

Reduced Oxygen Levels (Hypoxia): One of the biggest risks of obstructed sleep apnea (OSA), when left untreated, is low blood oxygen levels. Since sleep apnea causes a collapse in the airway, the flow of oxygen into the body and blood is restricted. If the brain does not get the proper airflow, a person will experience long-term damage to not only the brain but the body’s overall health and well-being. Without the proper supply of oxygen, the brain will suffer immensely as oxygen is essential to brain growth, health, and healing.

Interrupted Sleep Cycles: Sleep apnea causes a person to continuously start and stop breathing throughout the night. In those who have central sleep apnea (CSA), the disrupted breathing cycles can be due to the brain failing to send the appropriate signals to your respiratory muscles to breathe. This will lead to interrupted breathing throughout the night.

What are the Most Common Symptoms of Brain Damage due to Sleep Apnea?

symptoms of brain damage

Some of the most common brain damage symptoms include:

  • Weakness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Confusion/Trouble with memory
  • Seizures

Cognitive And Psychological Complications Of Sleep Apnea Brain Fog

Patients diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea demonstrate a decline in a wide spectrum of cognitive abilities, including memory, attention, psychomotor speed, and executive, verbal, and visual-spatial skills.

While a night of disrupted sleep may be inconvenient, the resulting daytime sleepiness can cause serious cognitive impairments. It reduces a person’s attention, as well as their learning and processing. A lack of sleep has also been found to induce effects that are similar to being drunk6, which slows down thinking and reaction time.

Just struggling to stay alert can, in itself, cause sweeping problems for thinking, but research also indicates that there are selective impacts of poor sleep on mental function. This means that insufficient or disrupted sleep causes more harm to certain parts of the brain with distinct effects on different types of cognition.

Is Sleep Apnea Brain Damage Curable?

The good news is that the effects of sleep apnea on the brain are not permanent. The use of CPAP therapy provides continuous airway pressure while sleeping, keeping the airway open and preventing apneas. This treatment for sleep apnea when strictly followed can improve sleep, increase oxygen flow to the brain, and reduce many of the harmful side effects of sleep apnea on brain function.

Are Sleep Apnea And Mental Health Related?

Sleep apnea also affects mental health, and sleep apnea patients have an increased risk of suffering from the following mental health disorders:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic disorder
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia

It’s no surprise that sleep apnea can cause anxiety. The interrupted sleep cycle and waking up repeatedly throughout the night feeling like you are choking or gasping for air can cause the brain and body to respond with stress or anxiety. The repeated pattern of continually waking up will result in your brain continually responding to stress, and that anxious feeling can even spill over to affect other areas of your life, like daytime sleepiness, mood swings, irritability, and more. These feelings can lead to having problems at work, having trouble focusing, and maintaining friendships and other relationships.

Sleep apnea and depression have also been linked together, as those who are depressed often have trouble falling and/or staying asleep. One of the most common symptoms of depression is insomnia, which can also be a sign of sleep apnea. Other signs and symptoms related to both depression and sleep apnea include:

  • Exhaustion during the day
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Trouble focusing
  • Weight gain

Learn more about the link between mental health and sleep apnea.

Do You Have Sleep Apnea?

To know for sure if sleep apnea is affecting your brain health, you need to get an accurate diagnosis through a sleep study. While sleep studies can be conducted within a clinical environment, many prefer the home sleep test for its convenience. You can find more about home sleep tests from Sleep Care Online.

How Does a Home Sleep Apnea Test Work?

• With the Complete Care Package, schedule a 10-minute telehealth visit with a healthcare provider to discuss your symptoms, upcoming sleep study, test results, and treatment options.

• A multi-night, disposable home sleep apnea test is mailed to your home to be completed at your convenience.

• A physician analyzes the sleep data and provides a prescription if needed.

• Schedule an optional follow-up appointment (additional fee applies).

• We connect you to sleep experts who can offer customized sleep therapy options, assistance in equipment purchase, and initial set-up.


  1. Health Essentials. If You Have Sleep Apnea, Your Memory May Decline Earlier in Life. May 18. 2015.
  2. Advanced Sleep Medicine Services. How Does Sleep Apnea Impact the Brain? Accessed September 2020.
Free Sleep Apnea Risk Assessment Image

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Do you qualify for SimpleRx?

1. Have you previously been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) via a sleep study?
2. Are you currently being treated with positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy?

Complete Care: Home Sleep Apnea Test (HSAT)

SimpleRx: CPAP Online Prescription Renewal Package