Sleep apnea may make people more prone to silent strokes

Having severe sleep apnea may make people more at risk for silent strokes and small brain lesions, researchers found.

A study presented this week at the American Stroke Assn.'s International Stroke Conference in New Orleans focused on 56 people, average age 67, who had had strokes. They were tested for sleep apnea and underwent magnetic resonance imaging and computerized tomography scans, which were reviewed by a radiologist who didn’t know the results of the apnea tests.

Almost all (91%) of the study participants who had a stroke also had sleep apnea. They were also more likely to have silent strokes as well as white matter lesions on their brains.


Researchers also discovered that having more than five episodes of sleep apnea a night was linked with having silent strokes. And more than a third of participants who had evidence of white matter lesions also had severe sleep apnea.

Silent strokes show no obvious symptoms, despite causing damage to the brain. White matter lesions, small patches of dead cells, can affect cognitive function.

“Sleep apnea is widely unrecognized and still neglected,” said lead author Dr. Jessica Kepplinger of the University of Technology in Dresden, Germany, in a news release. “Patients who had severe sleep apnea were more likely to have silent strokes and the severity of sleep apnea increased the risk of being disabled at hospital discharge.”