What are the effects of sleep apnea?

Steven C. Smart, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Short-term sleep apnea dramatically lowers your blood oxygen and raises the blood pressure effects on the heart. If your blood pressure is 150/80, an apnea episode causes your heart to be exposed to pressures of 250/180. The acute effect is a dramatic increase in stress on the heart and the stress hormones in your body. Long term, the net effect is thickening of the heart, stiffening of the heart, constriction of blood vessels, and increased pressure in the lungs causing a high-risk for heart failure, heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation, sudden death, kidney disease, accidents, major injuries and sleep-deprivation-related consequences.

Sleep apnea can cause:

• Chronic sleepiness
• Strokes
• Heart attacks
• Heartburn
• Morning headaches
• Depression
• High blood pressure
• Impotence

Sleep apnea affects many aspects of daily life, including:

  • excessive daytime sleepiness
  • dry mouth
  • morning headaches
  • emotional instability
  • poor coordination
  • erectile dysfunction
  • lowered libido
  • poor concentration and memory problems

If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, poor control of diabetes, cardiac arrhythmias, stroke and even death.

Untreated, sleep apnea can be life threatening. Excessive daytime sleepiness can cause people to fall asleep at inappropriate times, such as while driving. Sleep apnea also appears to put individuals at risk for stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs, also known as "mini-strokes"), and is associated with coronary heart disease, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, and high blood pressure. Although there is no cure for sleep apnea, recent studies show that successful treatment can reduce the risk of heart and blood pressure problems.
This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
Having sleep apnea puts your health in jeopardy in several ways. When you stop breathing, your body actually wakes itself up-without you consciously knowing it. One huge detrimental effect of this is that you can never get into a deep sleep, so your body never gets the rejuvenating effect of deep sleep.

Your body needs two things during the night (three, if you count back massages). It needs REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and it needs slow-wave sleep. To get into REM sleep, you need about 90 minutes of consistent sleep. So if you're waking up 10 times an hour, which is typical for people with sleep apnea, you're never getting into REM and won't wake up refreshed.

In the early stages of sleep apnea, there's no real damage to your body, except for occasional low periods of oxygen, which can kill some brain cells. But as the condition progresses, it leads to more serious issues, including hypertension.

The breathing stoppages cause your lungs to retain some carbon dioxide, which is what leads to the high blood pressure. You'll also be faced with excessive fatigue throughout the day, memory loss, and morning headaches.

Over time, sleep apnea can also increase your risk of stroke. In some cases, it can even trigger abnormal heartbeats and other cardiovascular events that cause death.
YOU: The Owner's Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider's Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger

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Ear, Nose & Throat (Otolaryngology)

Sleep apnea can be quite serious. In addition to the detrimental effects it has on an individual’s energy level, memory, concentration, attention and mood, research has shown that there is a link between sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease, such as hypertension, heart failure, stroke and arrhythmias. 

Untreated sleep apnea can cause a number of ill effects. The patient often wakes feeling poorly rested and with headaches and sore throat. Since sleep is interrupted throughout the night, a patient may have trouble staying awake during the day. Blood pressure can be elevated to dangerous levels, and the risk of heart attack and stroke is also increased. Patients may become irritable and anxious.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.