Sleep apnea is characterized by repeated episodes of breathing cessation (apnea) during sleep. These episodes last from 10 seconds to nearly a minute, ending with a brief partial arousal. This can occur and disrupt sleep hundreds of times throughout one night.
An estimated 18 million Americans have obstructive sleep apnea, yet 95% of them are undiagnosed and untreated. Sleep apnea is about twice as common among men as among women.
Now sobering findings from a study reported in the journal Sleep (volume 31, page 1071) suggest that people with sleep apnea are three times as likely to die of any cause as people without sleep-disordered breathing. And the risk for people with untreated sleep apnea is even higher.
The researchers studied 1,522 generally healthy men and women for 18 years, after testing them for sleep apnea with an overnight sleep test. Those with severe sleep apnea were three times more likely to die during the study period than those without it.
People whose sleep apnea was not treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) were nearly four times more likely to die of any cause and more than five times more likely to die of heart disease. The risk was the same for people with sleep apnea regardless of whether they were sleepy during the day, a common sign of sleep apnea.
While many previous studies have linked sleep apnea with a variety of health problems, including heart disease and stroke, until now scientists have not had definitive evidence of an increased risk of death from sleep apnea.
Take home message: If you’re in doubt about whether your snoring is a sign of sleep apnea or if you have been prescribed CPAP but haven’t been sticking with it, these study findings should help convince you of the value of having your sleep apnea diagnosed and treated.