Repeated pauses in breathing during sleep are more than just a nuisance: They can be downright dangerous. In fact, a recent study confirms that people with moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea have a 40 per cent increased risk for dying or suffering a heart attack.
In obstructive sleep apnea, the upper part of the throat interferes with the flow of air into the lungs, causing loud snoring, short stoppages in breathing, and disrupted sleep. Older obese men tend to be at higher risk.
Dr. Neomi Shah and her colleagues at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., studied the records of more than 1,600 patients from 1997 to 2005 who were referred for an obstructive sleep apnea evaluation.
A total of 796 patients suffered from moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea, defined as at least 15 breathing stoppages per hour of sleep. Ninety of these people died or suffered a heart attack (11 per cent), compared with 64 of the 844 people who did not have sleep apnea (eight per cent).
After the researchers adjusted for patients’ other heart disease risk factors, they found that obstructive sleep apnea was associated with a 40 per cent increased risk for heart attack or death.
Shah says several previous studies have looked at the association between obstructive sleep apnea and heart disease, but results are conflicting when it comes to determining the strength of the association between the two conditions. “Based on this work, I would recommend that patients who have the traditional risk factors for sleep apnea — older age, males versus females — and also have a background of cardiovascular disease … really should be screened for sleep apnea because of the increased risk of either having (a heart attack) or dying in the next four to five years.”