Heart disease is the leading cause of death among adults, all over the world. WHO data show that more than 30% of global deaths are attributed to cardiovascular disease. In fact, more people die of heart failure then all forms of cancer combined.
This group of diseases jeopardize overall health and increase the risk of serious complications and premature death, especially when heart problems coexist with other health conditions.
Due to this risk, medical professionals are urged to closely monitor patients with cardiovascular disease, which can help with the early detection of other conditions that could worsen their symptoms and reduce their life expectancy.
Recent studies have focused on the interaction between heart disease and sleep apnea, since this sleep disorder is known to aggravate the symptoms of heart disease. In this article we’ll look at the most recent findings on this subject, and what they mean for people who suffer both conditions.
Sleep apnea treatment and heart disease
Researchers at the Maryland School of Medicine recently published the results of a study that examined the impact of sleep apnea treatment in patients with heart disease.
When these patients are admitted to hospital due to a heart failure event, there’s a 21% chance that they will be readmitted within 30 days. The figure can be as high as 50% over a 6-month period. These numbers are considered very high -- and significantly impact the patient’s quality of life and the financial burden on the healthcare system.
The Maryland study looked at hospital readmission rates in patients with heart disease and sleep apnea. Researchers found an important difference in readmissions when comparing patients who followed sleep apnea treatment and those who didn’t.
CPAP lowered readmission risk
The good news: Researchers found that patients undergoing Continuous Air Positive Pressure therapy (known as CPAP) had a readmission rate of just above 10%, and this rate was maintained over a period of 2 years.
In fact, those patients who adhered carefully to their CPAP therapy – using it every night – had a distinct advantage.
They had a 60% lower chance of being readmitted to hospital within 30 days of the initial admission.
From this study we learn that sleep apnea treatment has an impact on heart disease outcomes and quality of life.
Physicians are now advised to screen heart disease patients for sleep apnea, and treat it as soon as possible to reduce the chances of hospital readmissions.
What is sleep apnea?
The word apnea comes from a Greek term that means “without breathing”. This is a sleep disorder that causes multiple breathing interruptions through the night, usually caused by a blockage in the upper airways – such as the throat muscles collapsing and blocking the flow of air.
There are three types of sleep apnea:
- Central sleep apnea, a relatively uncommon variation that involves the brain and the nervous system.
- Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of this disorder, affecting up to 30% of adults in the United States.
- Complex sleep apnea, which combines elements of central and obstructive sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea symptoms
Since obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of this disease (and the type examined in the Maryland study), we’ll look at its main symptoms, which include:
- Loud snoring.
- Gasping for air or choking sounds while the person is asleep.
- Excessive tiredness or fatigue during the day.
- Frequently waking up with a headache.
- Frequently waking up with a dry mouth.
- Trouble staying asleep.
- Mood changes, such as feeling irritable or frustrated for no apparent reason.
- High blood pressure.
- Trouble concentrating or remembering things.
Sleep apnea diagnosis
Just like heart disease, sleep apnea affects millions of people all over the world, so there’s a relatively high chance of both diseases coexisting. And because the majority of people with sleep apnea are unaware they have the condition, screening becomes a top priority.
Testing for sleep apnea involves having a sleep study and having this done in your own home is an approved way to find out if you suffer from sleep apnea.
A home sleep test that quantifies the number of breathing abnormalities, snoring, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, body position and any movement you may make while you sleep is accepted by insurance companies as an easy way to be diagnosed. These studies are interpreted by a board-certified sleep specialist.
Alternatively, a polysomnogram at a sleep clinic is a comprehensive test which measures brain waves, breathing patterns, heart rate, blood oxygen levels and any movement you may make while you sleep. This is the proper test if your doctor believes there is a neurologic cause of your sleep disorder requiring EEG, EMG and EOG. Narcolepsy and parasomnias are two sleep disorders that require an in lab polysomnogram at a sleep clinic.
Treatment options for sleep apnea
If you are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor will explain why treatment is important in order to keep the condition in check and avoid complications.
Untreated sleep apnea can have a negative impact on the body and contribute to the development of other serious conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, etc.
Fortunately, obstructive sleep apnea can be treated. Treatment options vary depending on how severe the condition is, but in most cases, doctors recommend CPAP therapy. A CPAP is a machine that delivers pressurized air through a mask, to ensure your airways stay open while you sleep.
There are different types of CPAP machines, but regardless of which one you use, the most important factor is consistency. Sleep specialists consider that the bare minimum is using the CPAP device for 4 hours each night, at least 22 days each month.
Falling short of this requirement could mean that you don’t see any improvement to your sleep disorder, and could also worsen other health conditions you may have, such as heart disease.
To sum up: if you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea and find it hard to use a CPAP device, speak to your sleep specialist. They can make adjustments so therapy is easier to follow.
And if you have a heart condition, sleep apnea testing may be in order, because if you get a positive diagnosis, CPAP could reduce the chances of being readmitted to hospital.