Undiagnosed or untreated sleep apnea has many physical effects on the body. Stroke, hypertension, and diabetes are all associated with an increased prevalence of sleep apnea. During the night, those with untreated apneas have periods of reduced breathing, meaning they are losing crucial oxygen while also suffering from sleep deprivation. Because of this, it is possible that sleep apnea affects the mental functioning of sufferers in addition to physical functioning. Using a commonly administered health assessment scale, a group of researchers set out to see if sleep apnea sufferers have reduced mental and emotional functionality when compared to those without sleep apnea.
The SF-36, a health survey that measures domains of physical functioning, bodily pain, vitality, social functioning, emotional functioning, and mental health, was administered to 245 subjects. These subjects were given the questionnaire during a visit to the sleep physician, meaning these subjects were seeking help for sleep issues. Subjects underwent a full sleep study where the presence and severity of sleep apnea were assessed.
Results from the SF-36 survey were calculated for each individual group of apnea severity. It was shown that in those with an RDI (respiratory disturbance index, or the number of breathing-related awakenings) of more than 15 per hour were more likely to have lower vitality and mental health scores. They also reported a greater rate of role limitations due to physical issues1.
So what does this mean? In this population, those with untreated sleep apnea had decreased mental and physical functioning, as assessed by this scale. Important to note is that obesity is most likely independently related to some of these reduced measures on the SF-36. Since we know obesity is a very prominent risk factor for developing sleep apnea, it is likely that reduced physical and mental health functioning could be due to excess weight or a combination of weight and untreated sleep apnea. This study further supports the notion that getting rid of excess weight should be the first step towards sleep apnea treatment, as reducing weight will help to alleviate both mental and physical burden while also lessening the chance for apneas during the night.
1. Karkoulias K, Lykouras D, Sampsonas F, Karaivazoglou K, Sargianou M, Drakatos P, Spiropoulos K, Assimakopoulos K. The impact of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome severity on physical performance and mental health. The use of SF-36 questionnaire in sleep apnea. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2013 Feb;17(4):531-6.