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Common Sleep Problem Can Lead to Heart Disease


February is American Heart Month. A common sleep-related breathing disorder, called obstructive sleep apnea, can lead to heart disease and stroke, which are two leading causes of death in the United States. 

While it can prevent restful sleep, studies show that sleep apnea is also consistently associated with high blood pressure, arrhythmia, heart failure and stroke.

“We’re not talking about plain old snoring,” says Anantharam Kalya, MD, cardiologist and medical director of the heart failure program at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. “A person with obstructive sleep apnea will often stop breathing several times throughout the night. As oxygen levels drop, the body’s blood vessels will ‘tighten’ in order to ensure enough oxygen reaches the heart and brain—thus, increasing blood pressure and a person’s risk for other cardiac issues.”

In addition, one of the more prevalent issues related to sleep apnea is a common form of arrhythmia or abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation (AFib), which affects approximately 2.5 million people in the U.S. and 33.5 million people worldwide.

“Atrial fibrillation is a leading risk factor for both heart failure and stroke,” says Dr. Kalya. “Studies suggest that treatment for this sleeping disorder—most often using a CPAP device at night—can significantly reduce the recurrence of AFib, and decrease hypertension.”

For patients with AFib, untreated sleep apnea increases the chance of AFib recurrence up to 80 percent. It is estimated that half of the patients with AFib also have sleep apnea, and that patients with sleep apnea have four times the risk of developing AFib.

Sleep apnea also increases the risk of heart failure which contributes to increased fatigue, shortness of breath, and pulmonary hypertension.

“Everyone should know their risk factors for heart disease and work with their doctors to take action early, before too much damage is done,” says Dr. Kalya. “The patients at most risk for complex cardiovascular problems are those with history of heart attack or heart failure and preexisting conditions like uncontrolled blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, and tobacco use. Obesity is also a leading risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea.”

Stroke kills more than 130,000 Americans each year, and more than 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year. Furthermore one Harvard study suggests that at least 200,000 of those heart disease and stroke deaths are preventable. Sleep apnea affects about 18 million U.S. citizens and 100 million people worldwide.