Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that children suffering from sleep apnea or obesity may have a harder time learning, and those with cognitive difficulties may be at higher risk for obesity and sleep problems.
“Cognitive functioning in children is adversely affected by frequent health-related problems, such as obesity and sleep-disordered breathing (SDB),” the authors wrote. “Furthermore, poorer integrative mental processing may place a child at a bigger risk for adverse health outcomes.”
While past studies have looked at the three factors- SDB, obesity and learning problems – seperately, the new study, published online ahead of print publication in the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, is one of the first to analyze the complex relationship between the trio.
After analyzing data from over 350 children between ages 6 and 10, researchers suggest that when targeting obesity in children, clinicians should also screen for sleep apnea and cognitive impairment, because improving one of these variables could also lead to improvement in the others.
“Good cognitive abilities may be protective against increased body weight and sleep-disordered breathing,” said Dr. Karen Spruyt of the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, as quoted by ABC. “If the brain can function optimally, it can help protect against the clinical manifestation of disease.”
Despite the new study’s findings, authors admit a few holes in the research remain.
For one, the research did not evaluate the interaction of the three factors in adults. While Children’s abilities can be assessed in school, cognitive function tends to be more difficult to measure in the later years.
In addition, Spruyt explained that children’s minds are still developing during the early school years, and they are more vulnerable to the health effects of obesity and sleep apnea.
Spruyt also said the next logical step in the research would be to try to determine precisely how obesity and sleep apnea affect the brain.
“This is a stepping stone for imaging studies,” she said. “Imaging studies would help to localize what brain areas are impacted.”