How well you sleep is reflective of your overall general health. But did you know that snoring and sleep apnea could be linked to heart and cerebrovascular problems? A 2024 study shows sleep apnea heightens the risk of developing heart conditions and the potential for strokes, both of which can cause an early death.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person experiences brief pauses in their breathing while sleeping, leading to low blood oxygen levels. An estimated 24 million adults live with undiagnosed sleep apnea due to symptoms going unrecognized. In the United States, approximately six million adults have been diagnosed with sleep apnea.
There are three main forms of sleep apnea. They are characterized by how they cause momentary lapses in breathing:
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): This condition occurs when the muscles at the back of the throat partially or completely close off a person’s airways and is the most common form of sleep apnea. Cases range from mild to severe depending on how many times one’s breathing is disturbed in an hour.
- Central Sleep Apnea (CSA): This occurs when the brain does not send messages to the rest of the body to breathe in air while a person is sleeping.
- Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome (CSAS): This condition is when a person suffers from both OSA and CSA.
Sleep apnea is most commonly associated with snoring loudly or making gasping or choking noises in the middle of the night. Other common symptoms include waking up with a sore throat or dry mouth, excessive daytime sleepiness and morning headaches. Although snoring is commonly associated with sleep apnea, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.
Some risk factors increase the likelihood of developing sleep apnea. Studies have observed a linear correlation between obesity and OSA due to excess fat collecting around the neck and chest, restricting the amount of air a person can take in. As a person gets older, their chance of having sleep apnea also increases. Lastly, lifestyle choices such as smoking and drinking alcohol affect how the airways relax and expand during sleep.
Health Risks Associated with Sleep Apnea
Young adults with OSA have a 60% increased chance of having a stroke later in life and are five times more likely to develop atrial fibrillation (AF), a type of arrhythmia.
The study used data from the Stanford Research Repository of over 768,000 subjects aged 20-50 and their health data from 2008-2021. These findings were recently presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2024, the world’s largest medical conference on heart health.
“Sleep apnea is really common but we sort of ignore it because we think it’s trivial or just a little bit of a nuisance. Until now no one’s really shown the magnitude of the size of the risk,” said Stanford professor of cardiovascular medicine Dr. Sanjiv Narayan told The Guardian.
Further research is needed to determine whether or not OSA is a direct cause of AF or strokes. Narayan said there are two hypotheses why sleep apnea could be linked to these cardiovascular issues.
“When you are unable to breathe, it raises the pressure in the lungs until you ultimately wake up gasping for breath. That puts a pressure load on the heart, which causes stretching in the heart chambers, and that could cause [AF].
“Another theory could be that the oxygen levels in the blood fall for tens of seconds and that could put stress on the heart,” said Narayan.
Preventing and Dealing with Health Risks
One takeaway from this study is that frequent snoring before age 50 should be seen as a health red flag. The study’s conclusion suggests screening measures should be taken for more sleep apnea cases to be diagnosed, especially among adults under 50.
Sleep apnea is usually discovered by a person’s partner who might be interrupted by loud snoring. If someone you know brings attention to your snoring or you deal with common sleep apnea symptoms, talk to your doctor about testing for sleep apnea. From there, an expert will inform you of the best ways to treat and manage symptoms to prevent other conditions from occurring.
[Editor’s Note: The information provided should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a sleep doctor or other medical expert if questions come up around one’s personal health.]