Alaska Sleep Education Center

Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease: The Risks of Untreated Sleep Apnea

Posted by Jennifer Hines

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on Aug 23, 2018 1:36:00 PM


There is a growing awareness concerning the link between sleep apnea and the consequences of excessive daytime sleepiness. Many people are beginning to realize the terrible impact that sleep apnea can have on their everyday lives and well being. However, the greatest threat to one's health from untreated sleep apnea isn't just the damaging effects of sleep deprivation, but the risk of developing heart disease.

Studies have shown a strong link between sleep apnea and a slew of cardiovascular problems that include high blood pressure, heart arrhythmia, heart attack, and cardiovascular disease. Studies also show that when patients with sleep apnea are treated for their disorder, their blood pressure and risk of heart disease drops significantly.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a medical sleep disorder in which a person has pauses in breathing or shallow breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the leading type of sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by blockage of the upper respiratory airways in which either the throat muscles collapse, the tongue falls back into the airway, or enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids impede airflow. When your airway becomes cut off, the brain has to wake itself to signal the respiratory system to kick back into gear. This often leads to breathing resuming with loud gasps, snorts, or body jerks that may wake you from your slumber and disrupt your sleep. When you're waked multiple times through the night, your body and mind don't get the rest they need to function, leaving you tired and drained during the daytime.

Obstructive sleep apnea can be considered one of three levels depending on the number of nightly sleep interruptions in breathing:

  • Mild OSA- The sufferer experiences 5-14 episodes of interruptions in breathing in an hour.

  • Moderate OSA- The sufferer experiences 15-30 episodes of interruptions in breathing in an hour.

  • Severe OSA- The sufferer experiences 30 or more interruptions in breathing in an hour.


How is sleep apnea related to heart disease?

During an apnea event (pause in breathing) the oxygen levels in your blood drop significantly. When this happens your brain partially wakes from sleep to send signals to the nervous system to constrict the blood vessels (tighten up) in order to increase the flow of oxygen to your heart and brain.

When your blood pressure increases at night to keep oxygen flowing to your heart and brain, it causes high blood pressure during sleep. Most people's blood pressure drops ten to twenty percent during sleep, but many patients with sleep apnea show an increase in blood pressure of ten to twenty percent.

Unfortunately, the increased blood pressure experienced during sleep often begins to overlap into periods of wakefulness. Even though your blood pressure only needs to be increased at night when you require extra respiratory effort to get oxygen, many people with sleep apnea end up with increased blood pressure at all times.

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, heart attack, and many other medical problems, and sleep apnea is a major risk for high blood pressure.

A study by the National Sleep Foundation found that men with severe OSA were 58% more likely to develop new congestive heart failure than men without sleep apnea. They also found that men aged 40-70 with an apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) of 30 or higher were 68% more likely to develop coronary heart disease than those with lower AHIs.

What can be done about sleep apnea?

osacpap200Treatments like continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy have been extremely successful in treating sleep apnea and many of its related symptoms and comorbidities. Treating underlying conditions of heart disease, such as sleep apnea, can greatly reduce the chances of developing more serious health problems.

When patients that were both at risk for heart disease and had sleep apnea were treated with CPAP machines, the patient's nighttime and daytime blood pressure was significantly reduced.

To fully assess the risk of sleep apnea and heart disease, a sleep study should be performed by a sleep specialist to both diagnose the disorder and rule out any other sleep disorders or identify any sleep-related comorbidities.

Most insurance plans cover sleep studies as part of their policies. While sleep studies can be somewhat costly, they pale in comparison to the medical costs of treating heart disease.


If you believe you may have sleep apnea and are concerned about the health risks associated with the disorder, discuss your symptoms with your primary physician and ask if a sleep study is right for you. And if you live in Alaska be sure to ask them about having your study performed at The Alaska Sleep Clinic, or contact us for a free 10-minute phone consultation by clicking the link below.

Finally - Sleep Consultation

Topics: sleep apnea

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