Sleep apnea occurs when your muscles relax during sleep. This causes soft tissue in the back of the throat to collapse and block the airway. Breathing pauses can last from 10 seconds to a minute or longer. The pauses end when the body briefly wakes up to gasp for breath. This repetitive cycle of breathing pauses continues all night long. A person with severe sleep apnea may have hundreds of breathing pauses per night.
These breathing pauses produce drastic changes in blood pressure and oxygen levels, while also fragmenting sleep. Over time, untreated sleep apnea puts a tremendous amount of stress on the body, increasing your risk for many other health problems.
These are eight of the health risks related to sleep apnea:
1. High blood pressure
Studies have shown that sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure, also known as “hypertension.” The amount of increase in blood pressure is related to the severity of sleep apnea; more severe sleep apnea produces greater increases in blood pressure. Elevations in blood pressure even can occur in children who have sleep apnea.
2. Heart disease
Untreated sleep apnea is a risk factor for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the U.S. as of 2005. Sleep apnea increases your risk for an irregular heartbeat, coronary artery disease, heart attack and congestive heart failure. A 2006 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that sleep apnea even affects the shape of your heart. Results show that the hearts of people with sleep apnea are enlarged on one side, have thickened walls and a reduced pump function.
Sleep apnea increases your risk for stroke, the third leading cause of death in the U.S. as of 2005. A stroke is a “brain attack” that occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted. It can result from either a blood clot that blocks an artery or from a broken blood vessel.
4. Brain damage
A study in the journal SLEEP in 2008 provided visual evidence of brain damage that occurs in people with sleep apnea. The damage affects brain structures that help control functions such as memory, mood and blood pressure.
Research shows that depression is common in people with sleep apnea. Even mild sleep apnea gives you a much greater risk of depression. This risk for depression increases with the severity of sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is associated with impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance. Type 2 diabetes, a leading cause of death in the U.S., occurs when the body fails to use insulin effectively. Research suggests that sleep apnea can contribute to the onset of diabetes.
Obesity is a key risk factor for sleep apnea. But there is increasing evidence that sleep apnea also may promote weight gain. Sleep apnea can fragment sleep, reducing daytime energy and physical ac