Rationale: Healthy aging is associated with cognitive deficits similar to those found in obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). As in OSA, older adults show compensatory cerebral activation during cognitive demands in the face of neurocognitive decline.
Objectives: The current study examines whether the combination of increasing age and sleep apnea will lead to a stronger compensatory response than either factor alone, or overwhelm the brain's capacity to compensate.
Methods: A total of 14 treatment-naive patients with sleep apnea (aged 25-59 yr) and 14 age-matched healthy control subjects were each divided into two age groups of young (<45 yr) and middle-aged (> or = 45 yr). All underwent a sleep study, followed the next morning by a functional magnetic resonance imaging session that included a sustained attention and a verbal encoding task. A priori contrast analyses compared middle-aged patients with OSA to young patients, young control subjects, and middle-aged control subjects.
Measurements and main results: Middle-aged patients with OSA showed reduced performance for immediate word recall and slower reaction time during sustained attention compared with the other three groups (middle-aged control, young sleep apnea, and young control). For both tasks, decreased activation was detected for middle-aged sleep apnea relative to the other groups in task-related brain regions.
Conclusions: These results suggest that the presence of both sleep apnea and increasing age overwhelmed the brain's capacity to respond to cognitive challenges with compensatory recruitment and to maintain performance. The findings that sleep apnea impairs performance and brain function at a younger age than what might ordinarily be expected underscore the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea.