Researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine have discovered that untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) accelerates biological ageing and that appropriate treatment can slow or even reverse the trend.

The findings of this study were recently published in the ‘European Respiratory Journal.’

Age acceleration testing uses a blood test that analyses DNA and uses an algorithm to calculate a person’s biological age. The phenomenon of a person’s biological age exceeding their chronological age is known as “epigenetic age acceleration,” and it has been linked to increased mortality and chronic diseases.

Age acceleration isn’t limited to OSA; it can be caused by a number of environmental factors such as smoking, poor diet, or pollution, said Rene Cortese, PhD, assistant professor in the Departments of Child Health and Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health. “In western culture, epigenetic age acceleration is not uncommon, but we wanted to know how OSA affects systemic age acceleration in comparison to those who do not have this condition.”

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Cortese’s team compared 16 adult non-smokers with OSA to eight control subjects without the condition over a one-year period to assess the impact of OSA on epigenetic age acceleration. Following a baseline blood test, the OSA group received one year of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment before being tested again.

“In comparison to the control group, our findings revealed that OSA-induced sleep disruptions and lower oxygen levels during sleep promoted faster biological age acceleration. However, OSA patients who used CPAP showed a deceleration of epigenetic age, whereas the control group’s age acceleration trends remained unchanged. Our findings suggest that biological age acceleration is at least partially reversible when OSA is effectively treated,” Cortese explained.

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According to Cortese, the key to CPAP’s success in slowing aging is strict adherence to using the device for at least four hours per night. It is unclear how age acceleration will affect clinical outcomes, or how it will apply to other risk groups or children with OSA.

Because children with OSA are treated differently than adults, “this study raises a lot of questions,” said Cortese. “We need to learn more about the mechanisms and biology underlying these discoveries. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking study.

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In addition to Cortese, MU colleagues Leila Kheirandish-Gozal, MD, director of the Child Health Research Institute, and David Gozal, MD, the Marie M. and Harry L. Smith Endowed Chair of Child Health, contributed to the study.