Sleep apnea is keeping between 12 million and 18 million Americans awake at night although many of these people don’t even know they have it. A new study has linked sleep apnea, also called sleep-disordered breathing, to a significantly greater risk of dying from any cause. The risk of death is even greater when the disorder is untreated.

Diagnosis can be a bit tricky because it requires an overnight stay at a sleep clinic instead of a routine visit to a doctor’s office. The three symptoms that best characterize the disorder are headaches in the morning, excess sleepiness during the day, and a spouse who complains of a great deal of lively snoring during the night.

Sleep-disordered breathing occurs when the upper airway becomes narrowed or even blocked entirely while a person is relaxed during sleep. As the airway is blocked, the air supply to the lungs is threatened or stopped altogether. It’s not uncommon for breathing to stop completely, sometimes for mere seconds but sometimes for as long as a few minutes. The interruption in breathing also interrupts the amount of oxygen circulating in the bloodstream. The robust snoring comes from the person waking up violently each time the breathing stops. Some people experience many episodes of sleep apnea over the course of just one night.

An 18-year-long study known as the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort followed 1,522 randomly selected men and women, whose ages ranged from 30 to 60 and who were deemed generally healthy at the beginning of the study. Each study participant spent a night under observation, undergoing a standard sleep test, at a sleep clinic to assess the presence or extent of sleep-disordered breathing.

Over the course of the study, sleep apnea was found to affect the lives of the participants diagnosed with the disorder, with death coming to them during the course of the study at a rate that was two to three times higher than study participants who did not have the disorder. The participants with the most severe cases of sleep apnea were at greatest risk of death due to all causes.

When sleep apnea remained untreated, the rate of death from any cause increased to four times more likely and the rate of death due to cardiovascular issues was five times higher than participants without the disorder. The findings of this study suggest treating sleep apnea reduces the risk of death associated with the disorder, with particular reduction of the risk of death due to cardiovascular events.

When left untreated, sleep-disordered breathing is associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. Sleepiness during the day can impair work and school performance and increases the chance of having an accident on the job or while operating a motorized vehicle.

Anybody can get sleep apnea, regardless of age, but the condition is most common in men. People who are elderly or overweight are at increased risk of developing sleep apnea, too, a situation that particularly alarms the research team. Americans are living longer than ever and the nation’s elderly population is growing, as is the number of Americans who are overweight or obese. The researchers fear the incidence of sleep apnea will rise according to these two factors.

The National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute supported this study, the findings of which have been published in the August 1 issue of the journal, Sleep.

Source: NIH