Sleep Apnea Treatment Linked to Improved Appearance

New research shows that people who stick to a treatment for sleep apnea end up looking more alert, youthful and attractive.

The most effective treatment for sleep apnea — continuous positive airway pressure (CNAP) therapy — requires users to wear a mask connected to a machine all night. Since this is burdensome, many people eventually stop CNAP, but a new finding suggesting that the therapy improves physical appearance may convince people to plug back in.

Researchers from the University of Michigan took photos of 20 adults with sleep apnea at the start of treatment and two months later. They then asked 12 medical professionals and 10 regular people to assess the two photos, picking which one the individual looked more attractive, more alert, and more youthful in. The judging group picked the one taken after treatment in about two-thirds of the time, even though they were presented in random order, the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, found.

The reasons for the research aren’t just skin deep — currently only 50 to 75 percent of people given CNAP machines use them, said study author Ronald D. Chervin, MD, MS, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “It’s frustrating because we have a solution where you wear the mask and use the machine, and people just don’t use it,” he said, adding that he hopes “the data will motivate people.”

Additionally, the researchers also teamed up with plastic surgeons to use photogrammetry, a photographing tool designed precisely to measure slight facial changes. This objective assessment confirmed that after being treated for sleep apnea with CNAP, people’s faces were less puffy and red. They did not, however, find that treatment decreased puffiness or dark circles under the eyes, which is commonly associated with sleepiness.

The results show that the individuals getting treatment with CNAP are healthier and experiencing better rest, said Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at Montefiore Medical Center.

“When you think about what sleep apnea does to someone — depriving them of oxygen multiple times an hour — when someone isn’t getting that full amount of oxygen, they’re not having as deep a quality of sleep,” she said.

While other sleep disorders, such as insomnia, inhibit sleep in other ways, it’s safe to say that not getting enough sleep wears on physical appearance, so getting enough rest is bound to improve it, Harris added.

This may be a good way to get people who are starting treatment on the machine to adhere to the treatment method, she said. “We’re a culture based on vanity,” she said, so this may be the convincing factor for patients.

Chevrin noted that the research showed a more robust effect of decreased redness in the Caucasian patients, which may be something to explore in future research.

The study was funded by donors who gave to the University of Michigan in honor of Jonathan Covault, who died as a result of undertreated sleep apnea.

By Susan E. Matthews