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 Is Sleep Apnea Related to Memory Loss?

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

Sleep Apnea Can Change the Shape of the Brain

That 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.

Is the Damage to the Brain Reversible?

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.

Cognitive and Psychological Consequences of Sleep Apnea

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 Mental Health Related to Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea also affects mental health, and those with sleep apnea have a far higher risk of anxiety, panic disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, or even schizophrenia.

It’s not surprising that sleep apnea can cause anxiety. Waking up repeatedly in the night feeling as if you’re choking or can’t breathe causes a stress response in the body and the brain. This can become a conditioned response and go on to affect many areas of your life. Daytime drowsiness, along with irritability, leads to problems at work, difficulty focusing, and relationship stress. You’re likely to feel anxious as your life spins out of your control.

Depression and sleep apnea could also be in relation. Those with depression often report trouble sleeping, and insomnia is one of the common symptoms of depression. Several other symptoms of sleep apnea, such as fatigue, daytime exhaustion, moodiness, poor focus, and weight gain, are also signs of depression.

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?

  1. With the Complete Care Package, schedule a 15-minute telehealth visit with a healthcare provider to discuss your symptoms, upcoming sleep study, test results, and treatment options.
  2. A multi-night, disposable home sleep apnea test is mailed to your home to be completed at your convenience.
  3. A physician analyzes the sleep data and provides a prescription if needed.
  4. Schedule an optional follow-up appointment (additional fee applies).
  5. We connect you to sleep experts who can offer customized sleep therapy options, assistance in equipment purchase, and initial set-up.

Order a Home Sleep Test Today!


  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.

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