Untreated Sleep Apnea: What Are the Serious Consequences?

Sleep apnea deprives the brain, arteries and organs of all-important oxygen needed for optimal health.

Without sufficient oxygen, night after night, the risk of serious medical conditions greatly increases – including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and early death. These are all risks of untreated sleep apnea.

In addition, there are risks to your mental health, productivity at work, and overall quality of life. Quite simply, your body and brain cannot function well without sufficient sleep – especially when sleep deprivation is long-term.

Let’s look more closely at what sleep apnea is – and the serious consequences of ignoring this condition.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea involves breathing difficulties while you sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of this disorder, where the soft tissues in the throat collapse and block the airways as the muscles relax overnight.

The resulting drop in oxygen levels prompts the brain to awake the body for air. These pauses in breathing can happen hundreds of times every night depending on the severity of an individual’s OSA.

If you snore loudly on a regular basis, wake up gasping for breath, feel sluggish every day, have difficulty concentrating, and fight sleepiness when driving, you may suffer from sleep apnea.

Once diagnosed, the disorder can be treated – but without treatment, OSA can increase the risk of serious health complications.

The following are 6 well-known consequences of ignoring sleep apnea.

1. Higher Diabetes Risk
People with sleep apnea are at a greater risk of insulin resistance and impaired glucose intolerance. This sees the cells in the body struggle to effectively take in the hormone insulin.

If the body is not taking in insulin as it should, it results in a rise in blood sugar levels and puts you at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a leading cause of heart disease and other medical conditions.

2. Increased Heart Attack Risk

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US. A sleep disorder like OSA that disrupts the level of oxygen in the blood will increase the risk of developing high blood pressure. The more severe the OSA, the greater the increase in blood pressure and the greater the strain placed on the heart.

People with OSA will be at an increased risk from an irregular heartbeat, heart attack and congestive heart failure. Research has shown that that someone with sleep apnea can have a heart which is enlarged on one side, with thickened
walls, and with a reduced pumping capability.

3. Chronic Fatigue

One of the primary symptoms of OSA is chronic fatigue. People with this sleep disorder can see their breathing interrupted up to 30 times every hour of the night. Each time breathing is paused the body awakes, and you’re sometimes gasping for air.

These arousals of the body may only last a few seconds and may only be noticed by a sleep partner. However, left untreated, these interruptions to sleep on a nightly basis will result in chronic fatigue during the day.

4. Mental Health Issues / Chronic Depression

Those with OSA are at a greater risk for depression. Even someone with a mild degree of the sleep disorder is still at an increased risk of mental health issues such as depression. This risk increases with the severity of the sleep disorder.

A vicious circle can also develop as anxiety and stress can prevent you from sleeping, while knowing you struggle to sleep can add to your anxiety. This can aggravate OSA symptoms, further increasing the risk of mental health issues.

5. Sexual Dysfunction

Another impact from sleep apnea is the impact it can have on your desire to have sex. Men with the sleep disorder may also find OSA contributes to erectile dysfunction and may even affect the possibility of having children.

6. Liver Problems

Someone with OSA is more at risk from fatty liver disease and also of having higher than average levels of liver enzymes. The liver may also show more signs of liver scarring.

They may experience an increase in the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disorder such as heartburn. too. This can impact on the quality of your sleep, further aggravating the symptoms of OSA.

What Can You Do to Prevent These Issues?

While sleep apnea left untreated increases your risk of serious health issues such as those discussed above, the positive news is the disorder can be treated.

The key is diagnosis – and you should consult with your doctor if you are displaying some of the following symptoms:

  • Frequent awakenings as you sleep
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Snoring
  • Morning headaches
  • Dry mouth in morning
  • Poor concentration
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability

Once diagnosed, the treatment for the severity of your disorder will be recommended.

Obesity is seen as one of the main contributing factors of OSA, and, therefore, lifestyle changes may be recommended such as a more balanced diet and exercise to help lose weight. Excess throat tissue can increase the risk of the airways becoming blocked when the muscles relax as you sleep.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy is one of the leading treatments for moderate to severe OSA. This involves a machine which filters air before supplying it at a pre-determined pressure setting through a mask worn while you sleep.

The pressurized air is inhaled through the mask to help prevent the tissues in the throat collapsing and to keep the airways open. This prevents the breathing difficulties which can see you awake many times every night and reduces or eliminates the symptoms associated with OSA.

Research indicates that by reducing the symptoms you can also reduce the risk of the six health complications discussed above.

Final Thoughts

Sleep apnea increases the risk of developing serious health problems and places you at a higher risk of death compared to people without the sleep disorder. However, treatments show a high degree of success in reducing the symptoms of OSA.

If you or your partner suspect OSA, do not hesitate to consult with your doctor who can refer you for a sleep test. Once diagnosed, you can receive the appropriate treatment to help you sleep well again, reducing the risk of the serious health issues that can arise from the sleep deprivation caused by OSA.