Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Your Cognitive and Mental Health

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) has been linked to an increased risk of physical health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But how does OSA affect your ability to think clearly, learn and remember, and your emotional psychological, and social wellbeing?

If you have ever worked a 24-hour shift or experienced back-to-back days of poor sleep, it probably comes as no surprise to hear that OSA has been linked to cognitive and mental health issues. OSA causes frequent breathing interruptions, or apneas, while you sleep—as many as 30 per hour. OSA is associated with:

  1. Trouble concentrating—OSA can lead to significant changes in two important brain chemicals, gamma-aminobutyric acid (known as GABA) and glutamate. Together, these two chemicals help maintain balance. People with OSA may have decreased levels of GABA and elevated levels of glutamate. GABA is a chemical messenger that acts as an inhibitor in the brain. It slows things down and helps you remain calm. Glutamate, on the other hand, speeds things up. When your glutamate levels are high, your brain is working in a state of stress and does not function as effectively.[1] Glutamate in high amounts has also been shown to contribute to brain damage.
  2. Memory problems—Throughout the night your body fluctuates through different sleep stages, allowing your brain to process and sort out all the information it has gathered throughout the day. OSA stops the flow of oxygen to your brain or completely cuts it off multiple times during the night, robbing your ability to reach deep and restorative sleep These frequent disruptions can contribute to memory loss and have a negative impact on overall brain performance.[2]
  3. Poor decision-making—Sleep is essential in maintaining brain health and contributes to your ability to learn and recall information. A lack of sleep caused by OSA can cause frequent problems with attention and concentration. If you suffer from OSA, you may have trouble focusing at work or school, being creative, solving problems, and making decisions.[3]
  4. Depression and stress—OSA can cause hundreds of interruptions in your breathing during the night, which can set off a constant fight-or-flight response. You may wake up suddenly with your heart racing, sweating, and a feeling of doom. This can carry over into the daytime, causing you to feel run-down and sleepy and your body to be without the energy it needs to protect you against depression and stress.[4]

The good news about obstructive sleep apnea’s impacts on cognitive and mental health

While OSA can negatively impact your day-to-day life, there is hope. The harmful cognitive and mental health effects of OSA can be reversed with treatment. For some, this may mean lifestyle changes. For others, it may mean continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP—a machine that helps you sleep easier.

Want to learn more about obstructive sleep apnea?

Find the recording of our webinar, “Obstructive sleep apnea: Impacts, diagnosis and treatment,” to hear board-certified somnologist and neurologist, Dr. Karen Jablonski, physician clinical reviewer, Magellan Healthcare, and I discuss the mental and physical health impacts of OSA, and OSA diagnosis and treatment here.


[1] https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/sleep-apnea-takes-a-toll-on-brain-function#:~:text=They%20found%20that%20people%20with,calm%20%E2%80%94%20like%20a%20brake%20pedal.

[2] https://goodsomnia.com/blog/snoring-sleep-apnea/can-sleep-apnea-cause-memory-problems/

[3] https://www.sleephealthsolutionsohio.com/blog/sleep-apnea-and-brain-health/

[4] https://www.everydayhealth.com/sleep/sleep-apnea-link-depression-anxiety/

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