The association of upper airway anatomy with cognitive test performance: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis

Robin M. Nance, Alison E. Fohner, Robyn L. McClelland, Susan Redline, R. Nick Bryan, Annette Fitzpatrick, Mohamad Habes, Wt Longstreth,, Richard J. Schwab, Andrew S. Wiemken, Susan R. Heckbert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Background: Numerous upper airway anatomy characteristics are risk factors for sleep apnea, which affects 26% of older Americans, and more severe sleep apnea is associated with cognitive impairment. This study explores the pathophysiology and links between upper airway anatomy, sleep, and cognition. Methods: Participants in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis underwent an upper airway MRI, polysomnography to assess sleep measures including the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) and completed the Cognitive Abilities Screening Instrument (CASI). Two model selection techniques selected from among 67 upper airway measures those that are most strongly associated with CASI score. The associations of selected upper airway measures with AHI, AHI with CASI score, and selected upper airway anatomy measures with CASI score, both alone and after adjustment for AHI, were assessed using linear regression. Results: Soft palate volume, maxillary divergence, and upper facial height were significantly positively associated with higher CASI score, indicating better cognition. The coefficients were small, with a 1 standard deviation (SD) increase in these variables being associated with a 0.83, 0.75, and 0.70 point higher CASI score, respectively. Additional adjustment for AHI very slightly attenuated these associations. Larger soft palate volume was significantly associated with higher AHI (15% higher AHI (95% CI 2%,28%) per SD). Higher AHI was marginally associated with higher CASI score (0.43 (95% CI 0.01,0.85) per AHI doubling). Conclusions: Three upper airway measures were weakly but significantly associated with higher global cognitive test performance. Sleep apnea did not appear to be the mechanism through which these upper airway and cognition associations were acting. Further research on the selected upper airway measures is recommended.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number394
JournalBMC Neurology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Cognitive function
  • Machine learning
  • Upper airway anatomy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology


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