Is Oxygen the Key to Better Brain Health?

A man performing a simple lung function test. He has to blow into the tube, so the balls in the device lift a little bit . (NIA)

Oxygen Therapy Improves Cognitive Function in people with COPD

A study carried out by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada jointly with researchers from the University of Split in Croatia was published July 5, 2018 in Experimental Physiology and shows that oxygen therapy improves brain function in people suffering from chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD).

COPD Is Progressive and Impacts Quality of Life

COPD includes people suffering from emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD is a lung disease characterized by difficult breathing and expelling a lot of phlegm. Smoking is the main cause for this disease, although some cases are caused by genetic and environmental factors. As the disease progresses, it can impact on quality of life, especially if it reaches the point where people need an oxygen tank in order to breathe. This limits all kinds of activities they can participate in, even though it is possible to get a portable oxygen tank.

Low Levels of Oxygen in the Blood

Many people afflicted with COPD are not able to walk upstairs and sometimes need to move to a different home. Those that suffer from moderate to very severe (COPD) suffer from being in a chronic state of very low oxygen in their blood called hypoxemia. As a result, there is not enough oxygen reaching their brains to ensure proper brain function. Research has shown that these people are in an increased elevated risk for cognitive impairment, dementia and ischemic stroke and this risk increases as the COPD worsens.

Low Flow Oxygen (O2)

The commonly prescribed treatment for people with hypoxemia is low-flow oxygen (O2). The aim is to increase the partial pressure of arterial oxygen while making sure there will not be too much oxygen (hyperoxia). This treatment lessens the chance for both death and cognitive impairment.

Participants in the Study had Hypoxemia

Participants in the study were 14 seniors about 69-70 years old who had hypoxemia. Before they arrived at the laboratory, they had abstained from exercise, alcohol and caffeine for a minimum of 12 hours and had fasted for four hours. Those that smoked refrained from smoking for a minimum of eight hours before testing. Researchers used ultrasound to measure blood flow in the brains of resting COPD patients, before and during the administration of additional oxygen.

Besides measuring blood flow in the brain, the researchers also examined the connection between brain activity and increased oxygen in the brain. To do this, patients began five cycles keeping their eyes shut for 30 seconds, then opening them for 30 seconds to read a standardized text.

The researchers compared the ultrasound results to a measurement of blood oxygen levels. This enabled them to see that the amount of oxygen sent to the brain increased during the time that the participants opened their eyes to read the text portion. This proved that the body sends more oxygen to the brain when the brain needs to function.


The results showed that there was no increase in arterial blood flow to the brain in response to oxygen therapy, but more oxygen was sent to the brain (CDO2), which resulted in improved neurovascular function in response to the increased oxygen. The oxygen therapy also improved the heart rate of the patients by reducing it, as many patients with COPD have a resting rapid heart beat. When the resting heart rate of patients with COPD is rapid this can hasten death. Thus, the researchers concluded that oxygen therapy for COPD patients can improve cognitive function and reduce the risk for dementia and early death.

Other Health Problems

People with COPD tend to have a lot of other health problems called comorbidities. Those who continue to smoke even after they have developed COPD are the most at risk for other diseases such as:

  • Diabetes – Some of the medicines to treat COPD can raise the levels of sugar in the blood.
  • High blood pressure in the lungs – pulmonary hypertension
  • Lung cancer
  • Heart disease – heart attacks, blood clots, heart failure, irregular heart beat
  • Osteoporosis – Some of the medicines to treat COPD can lead to osteoporosis.
  • Increased risk for pneumonia, flu and other infections
  • Depression and anxiety – The inability to breathe can cause tremendous anxiety and also having one’s quality of life impacted can lead to depression.
  • Gerd  and heartburn

The Need for Skilled Nursing Care

As COPD progresses and as other medical conditions develop, the day may come when it is time to leave home and go to a skilled nursing and care facility such as the Van Duyn Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Syracuse NY, that offers a Respiratory Wellness Program.  Also, the air in Syracuse and Onondaga County has had good ranks in the report from the American Lung Association. Syracuse-Auburn NY was tied for being the cleanest city in the United States for 24-hour particle pollution and Syracuse-Auburn NY ranked no. 14 out of top 25 cleanest US cities for year-round particle pollution.


The results of the study show that oxygen therapy can help to preserve brain function in people with COPD.  All efforts should be made to quit smoking, as this can lead to many other health problems including lung cancer.




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