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Sleep Apnea Can Put Your Heart at Risk

Sleep apnea may be doing more damage than previously thought. If you suffer from it, or suspect that you do, see a specialist as soon as you can. Sleep apnea is a momentary stop to the breathing cycle in sleep, usually accompanied by loud, disturbing snoring that your bed partner may have mentioned. But other than preventing your sleep, and straining your relationship, sleep apnea could also be damaging your heart regardless, putting you at a greater risk for an irregular heartbeat, new research shows.


Research from the University of Ottawa analyzed the medical records of 8,256 adults at an average age of 47 years, and who suspected they had obstructive sleep apnea, but had not been diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia, the most common type being atrial fibrillation. During arrhythmia, the heart beats too fast, or too slow, or just irregularly. During atrial fibrillation, the heart’s two chambers fibrillate (that is to contract very fast and irregularly). This can increase the risk of stroke, cause chest pain, or heart failure. 


The researchers reviewed the medical records of each patient and judged the severity of their obstructive sleep apnea according to how many partial or complete breathing pauses occurred in one hour of sleep, and how much time the patients spent with oxygen saturation levels below 90 per cent.

In follow ups over the next 10 years, the researchers determined that 173 patients with abnormal oxygen saturation levels developed atrial fibrillation that required hospitalization, but the breathing pauses during sleep had no greater effect on A-fib development. Also taken into account were other risk factors such as age, sex, smoking, and high blood pressure. It was found that hypertension (high blood pressure) was not a factor in those 173 patients. Obstructive sleep apnea was found to directly cause atrial fibrillation without the patient developing high blood pressure somewhere in the middle, or being at other risks for stroke.

However, a patient with sleep apnea often tends to have high blood pressure as well. For one reason, patients may be overweight, with a higher than normal amount of fatty tissues, and they may smoke or drink as well, factors that were taken into account in the research. With the abnormal oxygen saturation, the longer the patient stops breathing, the longer they are deprived of oxygen, and that puts more hard work onto the heart. The heart begins to accelerate and the blood pressure rises. Often, the patient is startled awake in a panic.

There were some limitations on the research. The doctors did not have data on how patients responded to being treated for sleep apnea. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines can help patients with sleep apnea by pushing air through a mask the patient wears while sleeping, and thereby reducing the amount of times the airway closes.

So, if your bed partner has mentioned that volume of your snoring is a bit more than an annoyance, and if you are sleepy during the day, wake with a headache or have difficulty concentrating, see your physician immediately, to see how CPAP therapy can help you.

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