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The danger of untreated sleep apnea

Everyone agrees that the breath-stopping type of snoring known as sleep apnea isn’t a good thing — it disrupts your nighttime rest, makes you sleepy during the daytime, boosts blood pressure, and increases the chances of developing heart trouble. Just how bad is it?

Pretty bad, according to an extended study of almost 1,500 Spanish snorers. Researchers followed the men, who had been referred to a hospital sleep clinic, with yearly checkups. All were offered the most successful treatment, called continuous positive airway pressure. It involves breathing through a face mask that delivers a stream of air into the nose. Many of the study volunteers decided not to use the device.

After 10 years, the researchers tallied up how many of the men had suffered a heart attack or stroke, needed a procedure to bypass or open a clogged heart artery, or died from cardiovascular disease. About 1 in 7 men (14%) fell into this camp.

Sleep apnea and heart trouble

Bars represent the number of fatal and nonfatal heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular problems for 100 men over a 10-year period.

Cardiovascular trouble was three times more likely in men with severe untreated sleep apnea than it was in men with treated sleep apnea. In fact, rates of heart trouble were about the same in men with treated apnea as they were among simple snorers — who have noisy but regular breathing during sleep — and nonsnorers. The results appeared in the March 19, 2005, Lancet.

A somewhat related study from the Mayo Clinic indicated that people with sleep apnea are more likely to die suddenly from a heart rhythm problem during sleeping hours. In the general population, such sudden deaths are most common in the few hours after waking.

September 2005 Update

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