Snoring linked to learning hurdles in kids, study finds

Up to 10% of US children are affected by obstructive sleep disorders

Snoring — and the health issues it creates — is a problem long presumed to be reserved for adults. But new research reveals that snoring children are suffering during waking hours too.

Children who snore on a regular basis show signs of structural changes in their brain that may lead to behavioral troubles, such as lack of focus, hyperactivity and cognitive challenges — much to the detriment of their education.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, observed for the first time that children who snore three or more times a week presented thinner gray matter in the brain compared to kids getting normal sleep. Poor sleep has been shown to reduce gray matter, the areas of the brain most densely packed with neurons, which play a critical role in day-to-day activities, particularly in terms of impulse control and reasoning skills.

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Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine perused MRI images of more than 10,000 children 9 to 10 years old who are enrolled in the National Institutes of Health’s Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, or ABCD Study, a long-term project to track children’s brain health in the US.

"These brain changes are similar to what you would see in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder," said lead author Dr. Amal Isaiah. "Children have loss of cognitive control, which is additionally associated with disruptive behavior."

Obstructive sleep disorders, including snoring, mouth breathing and breathing pauses during sleep, affect up to 10% of American children — over 7 million — according to researchers. They added that a "significant" portion of those cases may be misdiagnosed as having ADHD and treated with stimulants — thus potentially complicating sleep even further.

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"If you have a child who is snoring more than twice a week, that child needs to be evaluated," Isaiah advised. "We now have strong structural evidence from brain imaging to reinforce the importance of diagnosing and treating sleep-disordered breathing in children."

Isaiah called the project "the largest study of its kind detailing the association between snoring and brain abnormalities."

For most, the condition may be corrected via tonsillectomy or adenoidectomy. "Timely recognition" of the issue is critical, said co-author Dr. Linda Chang.

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"We know the brain has the ability to repair itself, especially in children," Chang said. "More research is needed to validate such mechanisms for these relationships, which may also lead to further treatment approaches."

Now, if scientists could just figure out a formula to simply convince kids to go to bed in the first place — an often futile effort that sees parents losing up to six days of sleep per year.

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