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How does sleep apnea affect my heart?

Scott M. Leibowitz, MD
Sleep Medicine

In people who suffer from sleep apnea, sleep goes from a restful, restorative state to a stressful physiological state that results in cardiovascular problems. Watch this video to learn more from Dr. Scott Leibowitz about how sleep apnea affects the heart.

Steven C. Smart, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Sleep apnea increases the stiffness and thickness of the heart. The pressure the heart is exposed to dramatically increases. The chemicals of stress in your body dramatically increase. The result is increased risk for rhythm disturbances of the heart, heart failure, heart attack, stroke and hypertensive injury to the kidney and other organs. It is a severe aggravating factor for people with hypertension.

Craig L. Schwimmer, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (Otolaryngology)
Untreated sleep apnea is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, including high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. The repeated stop breathing episodes, and decreased blood oxygen levels that sleep apnea patients experience stress the entire cardiovascular system. Snoring is the hallmark of sleep apnea, so if you snore and are concerned about the possibility of sleep apnea, please go to your nearest snoring center and get evaluated.
Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
Sleep apnea is a common cause of loud, disruptive snoring. People with sleep apnea temporarily stop breathing many times during the night. In those with the most common form, obstructive sleep apnea, soft tissue in the upper part of the mouth or back of the throat completely blocks the airway. The resulting drop in oxygen prompts the brain to send a "Breathe now!" signal that briefly awakens the sleeper and makes him or her gasp for air. That signal also jolts the same stress hormone and nerve pathways that are stimulated when you are angry or frightened. As a result, the heart beats faster and blood pressure rises -- along with other factors that drive up heart disease risk, such as inflammation and a propensity for blood clot formation. Daytime drowsiness often occurs with sleep apnea, which affects one in 10 people ages 65 and older.

Research documents the dangers of sleep apnea: in one study, people with severe sleep apnea were three times more likely to have died of cardiovascular disease during 18 years of follow-up than those without apnea. When researchers excluded those who used a breathing machine (a common apnea treatment), the risk jumped to more than five times higher. Apnea spells can trigger arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), and the condition also increases the risk of stroke and heart failure. Studies are now under way to see if treating sleep apnea with specialized breathing machines can help prevent heart disease deaths.

In the meantime, experts advise people with high blood pressure, angina, heart failure, peripheral vascular disease, a past heart attack or stroke, or other types of cardiovascular disease to consider getting checked for sleep apnea.
Fred Y. Lin, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (Otolaryngology)

Sleep apnea has been found in multiple studies to be directly linked to a higher rate of high blood pressure or hypertension in patients with moderate to severe levels of disease. There is also evidence that sleep apnea may increase the risk of stroke, heart failure, and arrhythmias. Sleep apnea can indeed have serious consequences to your heart.  

Sleep apnea can affect the heart over time, if not appropriately treated.

Sleep apnea can cause a condition called pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure in the blood vessels of the lungs. This condition puts extra strain on the heart and over time can cause heart failure. In heart failure, the heart can become enlarged or thickened and not pump blood effectively. The most effective way to prevent this complication of sleep apnea is to use CPAP therapy as directed by your physician.

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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.