5 heart problems caused by sleep apnea

A common sleep problem is bad for your heart, and the number of people that have it has increased by double digits over the past decade.  Studies suggest as many as 26 percent of all Americans may have mild to severe sleep apnea, and only about 10 percent are aware that they have it.

So, as many as 75 million people have a condition that many of know little about.  Sleep apnea is a condition that intrudes into daily living by causing snoring, daytime sleepiness, headache, and poor concentration, but it also can lead to potentially deadly cardiac issues.

Let’s take a look at some of the heart problems that studies have shown sleep apnea can cause:

  1. Atrial fibrillation.  Traditional treatment for the irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation consists of blood thinners, medications, and an invasive, expensive procedure called ablation.  There may be a more natural approach.  Atrial fibrillation has been cured in people who are overweight and have sleep apnea.  The treatment consists of weight loss, and sometimes using a device called CPAP to improve oxygen levels during sleep.  According to the Sleep Heart Health Study, the likelihood of developing afib if you have untreated sleep apnea increases fivefold, and treatment improves the likelihood that your rhythm will stay regular into the future.   
  2. Hypertension.  There is no doubt that undiagnosed and untreated obstructive sleep apnea can result in high blood pressure.  In addition, apnea can make hypertension very difficult to treat with medication, and one-third of people with a condition called resistant hypertension have undiagnosed sleep apnea. Again, weight loss and using a CPAP mask as prescribed by a sleep specialist can make a huge difference
  3. Stroke.  Obstructive sleep apnea (called OSA), has been shown to increase the risk of both stroke and premature dementia.  An analysis published just this month in the journal PLOS One demonstrated that treating the condition with CPAP was associated with a lower incidence of stroke and cardiac events.       
  4. Coronary artery disease.  Not only does untreated OSA worsen atherosclerotic coronary disease  (the blockages that cause heart attacks), it also messes with metabolism, worsening cholesterol and sugar levels. This can lead to fatal heart attacks.   Reggie White, the Philadelphia Eagle great, died at age 43, most likely from OSA.
  5. Pulmonary hypertension. This condition, in which blood pressure in the lungs can be markedly elevated, is another cardiovascular disease with a well-established relationship to OSA.  Sleep apnea is also associated with congestive heart failure, and inflammation that may have an impact on other non-cardiac problems such as Parkinson’s disease.

Obstructive sleep apnea is often associated with being overweight, and losing weight can be a cure.   If you are a guy with a neck size over 18 inches, or a woman with a neck measuring more than 17 inches, there is an increased chance that you may have OSA.  It is more common in men than women, with up to 34% of men and 17% of women having undiagnosed OSA.

Central sleep apnea, the less common type, and is not related to weight. 

The only way to diagnose sleep apnea is to have a sleep study.  For years, this had to be done in a clinic, but now more people are being screened at home.

Treatment with a CPAP machine requires wearing a mask over your nose or mouth while sleeping, a deal breaker for many.  Newer technologies including smaller masks and mouth appliances have improved treatment, so if this fear has prevented you from getting checked out, it may be a good time to reconsider.

Seeing a sleep specialist now may avert the need to see a cardiologist in the future. 

Dr. David Becker is a board certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology in Flourtown, Pa. and has been in practice for 25 years. In 1993, after extensive research, Dr. Becker launched Healthy Change of Heart™, an innovative 10-week program designed to reverse heart disease and improve quality of life through diet, exercise, and stress management. Since then, thousands of patients have participated in the program, achieving significant results in improving cardiac wellness.


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