Snorers are losing their minds, literally

SNORING sufferers are more likely to have shrunken brains and damaged arteries.

Snoring has been comedy fodder at least as far back as Chaucer, but Australian research shows it to be no laughing matter.

One of two new studies being presented at a conference of medical experts in Christchurch provides new evidence that snorers who suffer from the interrupted breathing condition called obstructive sleep apnoea have reduced grey matter — the cells that make up the brain’s thinking and processing centres.

Sleep apnoea has previously been linked to high blood pressure, and thus to increased risk of strokes and heart attacks. But a research team led by experts from the Institute for Breathing and Sleep at Melbourne’s Austin Health has produced the most reliable evidence yet that the condition is linked to brain damage.

Lead author and sleep physician Fergal O’Donoghue said in collaboration with British colleagues, researchers scanned the brains of 60 sleep apnoea sufferers using hi-tech magnetic resonance imaging machines, and compared the results with scans from 60 control patients without sleep apnoea.

“What we found was there did appear to be some changes in the brain in patients with sleep apnoea,” Dr O’Donoghue said.

While he said it was a “chicken and egg” situation as to whether sleep apnoea caused brain shrinkage, or vice-versa — or no causal link existed either way — it was likely the apnoea was to blame.

“I think the probability is that it’s secondary, that the sleep apnoea causes the changes,” he said.

“These were patients with very severe decreases in oxygen levels during the night, and we know from animal studies that if you subject them to drops in oxygen levels, they do develop changes in brain structure.”

It remained unclear whether treating sleep apnoea effectively, restoring blood oxygen levels through the night, could reverse the shrinkage.

A second study to be presented to the Australasian Sleep Conference in Christchurch tomorrow has found heavy snorers — even those who do not suffer from the interrupted breathing of sleep apnoea — have three times the rate of damaged artery walls, called atherosclerosis, of the carotid artery in the neck, compared with non-snorers.

Lead author John Wheatley, professor of medicine at Sydney University, said the back of the throat was only 1.5cm from the carotid artery, and the finding backed the theory that throat vibrations could hurt artery walls.

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