Untreated Sleep Apnea Can Harm Kids' Learning

Health Notes Archives - Click HereBy Christina Elston

Does your child snore loudly and feel unusually sleepy during the day? He may have sleep apnea, and that could put his ability to learn at risk.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University have found that, if left untreated, sleep apnea can cause changes to portions of children's brains tied to learning ability. In a study published in August in the online journal Public Library of Science Medicine, researchers found that kids with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) - associated with episodes of interrupted breathing during sleep - had altered ratios of brain chemicals in the brain's hippocampus and right frontal cortex. These govern learning, memory storage, and higher-level thinking.

Several studies have shown similar brain changes in adults with OSA, according to Ann Halbower, M.D., medical director of the pediatric sleep disorders program at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the study. This study, she says, is the first to show such changes in children, and the take-home message is that early diagnosis and treatment are essential.

Classic symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • loud snoring;
  • interrupted breathing during sleep;
  • abnormal daytime sleepiness; and
  • attention and behavior problems

However, diagnosis in kids can be tricky because their symptoms can be different. For instance, instead of snoring, kids sometimes wrench themselves into odd positions during sleep to help keep their airways open, "so parents can miss that," Halbower says.

Luckily, OSA recognition among pediatricians is growing. "Most pediatricians are starting to become aware of sleep apnea as a problem in kids," Halbower says. "They are connecting daytime behavior problems such as ADHD and nighttime sleep problems."

Halbower and fellow researchers are working to determine whether changes caused by OSA are reversible. "The question is also whether we could improve a child's cognitive potential during his developmental years," she says. Researchers point out that the areas of the brain impacted by sleep apnea mature during the teen years and continue into the 30s, making damage to these areas potentially more serious in childhood.

- Christina Elston is the contributing health editor for United Parenting Publications. Read more health tips and updates in our Health Notes Archives.