Sleep Apnea: The Secret Killer of the 21st Century?

Could sleep be actually doing your body more harm than good?

For many people, dreams are neither sweet nor peaceful, and stress and shifty economy are by no means the only reason for winks lost. It’s been estimated that sleep apnea affects as many as 3% of Canadian adults, which is alarming since the disorder is closely linked to increased risk of various conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes type 2, anxiety, and depression. And as though this wasn’t enough of a health scare, a recent study found sleep apnea to be linked to increased risk of premature death from all causes. But what exactly is sleep apnea, what are its common symptoms and risk factors, and how can it be most efficiently treated?

Try Not to Hold Your Breath: Sleep Apnea Types and Symptoms

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that’s often categorized into two different types, i.e. obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is more common and it occurs when the tongue and muscles surrounding the throat constrict the airway during sleep, thus interrupting breathing for over ten seconds at a time and preventing inhaled air from entering the lungs. The long pauses in between breaths can occur as many as several hundreds of times per night and are usually accompanied by loud snoring. Although excess weight is by far the most common cause of the disorder, other OSA risk factors include heredity, ethnicity, age, chin and jaw placement and/or size, and small upper airway diameter.

Central sleep apnea (CSA), on the other hand, is far less common and involves absence of signals from the nervous system for the respiratory system to make an effort and inhale air for longer than normal periods of time.

Unless diagnosed and treated on time, sleep apnea can result in reduced sleep quality, daytime sleepiness, and problems focusing. Unfortunately, the list of health concerns doesn’t stop there.

Losing Sleep and Health, Too: The Tip of the Health Risk Iceberg

Low quality of nighttime rest and life in general are far from the only issue people suffering from sleep apnea are facing. Studies show that OSA can hamper endocrine function and contribute to weight gain and diabetes type 2, and it’s also a risk factor for certain cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension and coronary artery disease.

A 2011 study found sleep apnea to be linked to increased risk of blood vessel abnormalities and impaired blood supply to the heart, both of which are a risk factor for stroke, heart attack, and heart failure. Furthermore, a 2015 study published in Arthritis and Rheumatology showed that OSA can increase the likelihood of gout attack by a whooping 50%, while a study featured in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine stated that OSA treatment can lead to improvement of symptoms of moderate to severe depression in sleep apnea patients.

Sadly, adults aren’t the only population at risk. Sleep apnea affects children as well, which is a startling data since one of the prime culprits behind the sleep disorder is obesity, another silent 21st-century health hazard which is evolving into a global epidemic. In cases of juvenile sleep apnea, potential complications involve growth hormone level disturbances, attention deficit disorder, learning difficulties, and impaired intellectual development and cognitive function.

OSA and Risk of Early Death: Could Your Sleep Be Killing You?

In addition to elevated risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions, the seemingly benign sleep disorder can also increase the odds of premature death from all causes. A 18-year study by experts of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health showed death rate for patients with untreated OSA to be three times higher compared to that of non-OSA individuals. Furthermore, the findings showed that OSA patients with 30 or more pauses in between breaths per hour of sleep stand a five times higher risk of cardiovascular death than individuals who had less than five breathing interruptions per hour of sleep.

Stubborn Yet Highly Treatable: Most Efficient OSA Therapies

According to CPAP Clinic experts, continuous positive airwave pressure (CPAP) is currently the most effective therapy for sleep apnea. A nasal mask that limits throat obstruction and delivers pressurized oxygen to the airway, CPAP device is extremely efficient in lowering blood pressure and normalizing heart beat rate, thus minimizing cardiac damage and possibly even preventing heart disease. Nevertheless, a 2016 SAVE trial showed that CPAP treatment can’t reduce death rate for sleep apnea patients diagnosed with coronary artery disease or a history of stroke, although it can help improve daytime drowsiness, anxiety and depression, and overall quality of life.

Still, CPAP can’t alleviate sleep problems for all OSA patients. Fortunately for people with CPAP intolerance, the hypoglossal nerve stimulation (HGNS) therapy holds the potential to improve sleep quality and reduce risk of related health complications. First clinically tested in 2010 and approved by FDA in 2014, the HGNS implant can halve the number of breathing interruptions in patients with moderate to severe OSA, while at the same time boosting nighttime oxygen levels, improving rest quality, and reducing daytime sleepiness.

Last but not the least, patients who fail to find comfort in both CPAP and HGNS can undergo somnoplasty or jaw bone relocation surgery. Combined with weight loss and healthy lifestyle changes, surgery can help improve OSA in cases that seem to spite other treatment methods.

Sleep apnea isn’t as benign as it’s usually believed to be: it’s one of the prime risk factors for a range of serious health conditions, and it can even shave your lifespan. On the plus side, the disorder is highly treatable granted timely diagnosis. Don’t lose your health, or your sleep, over sleep apnea: every breath you fail to take tonight can be the tipping point of a cardiac attack, and that’s a scenario you can prevent by having yourself checked for sleep apnea today.

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