Most Americans agree that heart disease and diabetes top the list of health problems related to obesity.  But a new survey shows that obstructive sleep apnea may be slipping under the radar.

The household survey was conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.  More than 1,000 adults gave their opinion about obesity and related health issues in the U.S.  The results are presented in the new report, Obesity in the United States: Public Perceptions.

Participants were asked to name “the most serious health impacts of being overweight or obese.”  Multiple responses were allowed.

Heart disease was ranked highest.  It was named by 78 percent of respondents.  Seventy percent also mentioned diabetes.  But only 5 percent of adults named “lung/respiratory” problems such as sleep apnea.

The link between obesity and sleep apnea is clear.  Excess body weight is the major factor that puts a person at risk for OSA.  A recent review of research concluded that OSA is estimated to occur in up to 45 percent of obese adults.

But does sleep apnea have a serious impact on your health?  Again, the evidence is clear.  Research shows that people with untreated OSA have a much higher risk of numerous health problems.  These include heart disease, diabetes, stroke and depression.

It’s easy to understand why.  Severe sleep apnea may involve hundreds of breathing pauses in one night of sleep. Oxygen levels go up and down, putting stress on the body and brain.  Blood pressure rises, and the heart works harder.  As a result, permanent changes can occur to the heart and blood vessels.  And brain tissue can be damaged.

The good news is that sleep apnea can be treated.  CPAP therapy is the treatment of choice for OSA. It eliminates breathing pauses during sleep and restores normal oxygen levels.  Oral appliance therapy is another treatment option for mild to moderate OSA.

Loud and frequent snoring is a key warning sign for OSA.  If you suspect that you or a loved one may have sleep apnea, visit a local sleep center for help.