Being diagnosed with any health condition can be a cause for concern, and understandably so. In the case of sleep apnea, patients often worry about the health risks posed by this condition, since it can affect more than just the quality of their sleep.
Today, we want to dispel any doubts you may have about the real impact that sleep apnea can have on your health. Let’s look at what medical research has shown us so far.
Just how serious is sleep apnea?
There are different types of sleep apnea, but we will focus on obstructive sleep apnea or OSA, which is the most common type. To understand the health implications of OSA, we need to understand how exactly this condition affects the body.
During an OSA episode, the throat muscles relax excessively, to the point that they collapse -- creating a blockage in the upper airways. The blockage can last up to 20 seconds, before you are jolted awake gasping for air or choking.
The effects of oxygen deprivation
The important thing here is that when you stop breathing during an OSA episode, oxygen doesn’t reach the brain. Medical studies have confirmed that brain cell functioning is very sensitive to oxygen levels, and any deviation from the norm can cause problems.
For example, some brain cells can die within 5 minutes of an interruption in their oxygen supply. Over time, as brain cells start to die, a person with OSA may start noticing that their mind isn’t as agile as it used to be.
Oxygen deprivation is a real risk for people with OSA. Researchers have found that chronic and intermittent episodes of oxygen deprivation can increase oxidative stress, a process associated with premature aging and with a higher vulnerability to disease. Common symptoms include memory loss, learning difficulties, and having trouble concentrating.
Moreover, it has also been confirmed that the multiple sleep interruptions caused by OSA affect the amount of deep sleep you get. Both brain and body need uninterrupted deep sleep to remove toxins and restore normal functioning, so when you wake up multiple times, your body isn’t getting a chance to recover from the previous day’s stressors and instead creates a build-up of toxic proteins. This process has been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, which has a high mortality rate.
More health risks
We also know that OSA can increase your chances of developing heart conditions, including stroke and heart failure. During an OSA episode, the lack of oxygen causes the blood vessels to constrict and this results in blood pressure spikes.
This is why people diagnosed with OSA usually have higher than average heart rates (even when awake), as well as variable blood pressure. The longer OSA goes untreated, the more severe the resulting heart conditions can become – especially with regards to OSA-related blood pressure, which can become drug resistant.
Cardiovascular disease is a serious complication of sleep apnea. Researchers at Yale have found that having this condition increases the risk of suffering a heart attack or dying within 4-5 years by 30%.
The risks of sudden cardiac-related death are also significantly higher in OSA patients, and can reach an 81% increase over the general population. Moreover, we can’t forget that the daytime fatigue associated with OSA can also increase the chances of injuries and accidents.
So is obstructive sleep apnea fatal?
Even though sleep apnea episodes cause oxygen deprivation, you don’t need to worry about dying from suffocation during sleep -- as the brain tells the body to wake up when it senses it’s running out of oxygen. So it’s highly unlikely that you’ll die from an OSA episode.
Having said that, oxygen deprivation, heart conditions, and excessive daytime fatigue caused by OSA are certainly serious and can lead to premature death.
But as your physician or sleep specialist will explain, an OSA diagnosis is not a death sentence. Obstructive sleep apnea can be treated – and should be treated, the sooner the better if you want to reduce the risk of developing these health complications.
Continuous Positive Air Pressure (CPAP) is the gold standard in OSA treatment. This therapy involves using a machine that delivers a steady flow of pressurized air to your airways via a face mask.
Nightly use can significantly improve OSA symptoms, help you get better sleep quality, and give your brain and body the rest they deserve.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to get treatment. A study carried out in Spain compared the 12-year survival rate for treated and untreated OSA patients, and the results confirmed that CPAP does make a difference -- 17% of participants with untreated OSA suffered a fatal cardiovascular event, whereas the risk for participants under treatment wasn’t any higher to that of the healthy population.
CPAP therapy can be personalized so the mask is a comfortable fit – and the CPAP machine meets your needs. And remember that CPAP isn’t the only treatment option, since this sleep disorder can also be addressed with oral devices (similar to a dental retainer), surgery, and certain exercises. If you have doubts or concerns, make sure to speak to an experienced sleep specialist.