Dr. Paul Macey, UCLA – Women and Sleep Apnea

Feb 11, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Paul Macey of the UCLA School of Nursing explains why the symptoms of sleep apnea can be worse for women than for men.

Paul Macey is Associate Dean for Information Technology and Innovations at the UCLA School of Nursing where his research interests are focused on examining the brain in people with sleep disordered breathing. His research group typically uses brain MRI scanning to examine brain structure and function in patients with sleep apnea. His work has appeared in a number of peer-reviewed journals and he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

About Dr. Macey

Dr. Paul Macey – Women and Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is the problem of breathing during sleep where people briefly choke when they try to inhale because their airway gets sucked closed for a few seconds.  This happens hundreds of times a night and affects millions of Americans.

Not surprisingly people feel terrible when they wake up,  but sleep apnea also leads to a lot physical and psychological health problems.  Recent research uncovered that women are more seriously affected by obstructive sleep apnea then men, which seemed counter-intuitive because men are twice as likely to have sleep apnea.  We now know that for the same severity of sleep apnea (that is, the same number of times breathing is blocked during the night), women show more physical and especially psychological symptoms than men.

Our study showed that injury to the brain is greater in women than men. We knew from  previous studies that people with obstructive sleep apnea have changes in the brain, but those earlier studies did not consider gender differences. What our study showed is that the brain “white matter --  nerve fibers which connects brain cells -- is more affected in women, particularly areas of the brain near the front above the eye sockets show more damage in women.   These brain areas regulate mood and decision making. So our findings raise the possibility that the reason women are more affected by sleep apnea than men is because their brains are more affected.

However, we can’t be certain the brain changes cause the problems in women, because we don’t know which came first - brain changes or sleep apnea. Therefore, in future studies, we plan to look at changes over time, in a larger group of women and what treatments improve brain function.