The report was published online May 21 in the New England Journal of Medicine, to coincide with its planned presentation at the American Thoracic Society annual meeting in Philadelphia.
"This is another validation of adenotonsillectomy for the treatment of sleep apnea in children," said Dr. Sandeep Dave, an otolaryngologist at Miami Children's Hospital. "We advise and recommend surgery for sleep apnea."
As for whether mental function is harmed by sleep apnea, "I think the verdict is still out whether or not there are changes in attention-deficit [ADHD]," Dave said.
For the study, 464 children aged 5 to 7 years were randomly assigned to have their tonsils and adenoids removed or to "watchful waiting with supportive care."
Almost half of the children in the study were obese or overweight, the researchers noted. Sleep apnea is more prevalent among obese or overweight kids.
To see whether the surgery improved learning and memory, the children were examined using a test called the Developmental Neuropsychological Assessment.
The researchers found no significant difference in these test results between the children who had surgery and those who didn't.
Children who had surgery, however, showed significant improvements in behavior, sleepiness, executive functioning and quality of life, compared with children in the watchful waiting group, the study authors noted.
Parents were asked to rate how well their child kept up with tasks, got along with other children and planned ahead, and whether they had angry outbursts or mood changes, worried frequently or had trouble sleeping.
These results were confirmed by the children's teachers as well, the researchers added.
Adenotonsillectomy is the primary treatment for sleep apnea in children. Over half a million U.S. children have the surgery each year, according to the researchers.
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