Sleep Apnea and Cognition in Adolescents

Understandably, babies, young children and older adults are the subject for much scientific research. Typically forgotten, though, are those between the ages of 12 and 18, who are considered adolescents. During this stage of early adolescence, crucial brain and body developments are taking place (remember puberty?), so studies investigating this age group are extremely important. Because a growing amount of adolescents are overweight or obese, sleep apnea is a concern. So does the presence of sleep apnea affect this generation? Might this sleep apnea affect the cognitive functioning of this age group as it does for younger children?

With this question in mind, a research group recently set out to examine if sleep apnea, obesity, and cognitive functioning were all related. The study population included 37 severely obese adolescents, between the ages of 12 and 18. Sleep of the subjects was tested in the laboratory, and subjects also underwent cognitive testing. Cognitive assessment included domains of short and long-term memory, executive functioning (higher-order processing), psychomotor efficiency, and intelligence.

Results showed that 90% of the subject population snored, confirming the link between sleep-disordered breathing and obesity. Those with worse sleep overall (higher sleep fragmentation) showed lower scores for vocabulary and memory recall. Importantly, there were no differences between those with and without apnea for IQ and executive functioning, showing some cognitive domains were spared in this population1.

This study is interesting because the entire subject population was severely obese, meaning obesity could not be a confounding factor. When typically comparing those with and without sleep apnea, it is difficult to say whether the apnea or the obesity is the factor causing the issue. Because of this, the present study does make a case for these cognitive tests being related to sleep quality and not obesity alone. While it is a relief to see that not all domains of cognition were affected in those with sleep apnea, it certainly does not mean that those kids are off the hook. Over time, untreated apnea and snoring will certainly create issues for this population, a population vulnerable even without the sleep apnea!



1. Hannon TS, Rofey DL, Ryan CM, Clapper DA, Chakravorty S, Arslanian SA. Relationships among obstructive sleep apnea, anthropometric measures, and neurocognitive functioning in adolescents with severe obesity. J Pediatr. 2012 May;160(5):732-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2011.10.029.

Janna Mantua


Janna is a PhD Student / Graduate Research Assistant at University of Massachusetts Amherst with a background in clinical sleep research and psychology. Janna Mantua is a PhD student in the Behavioral Neuroscience department at the University of Massachusetts. Her research focuses on sleep and aging, with specific projects on cognitive health, inflammation, memory formation, and neuroimaging. Prior to her PhD work, Janna was involved in research on sleep apnea and cognitive decline at the NYU Sleep Disorders Center.

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