Harvard Heart Letter

How sleep apnea affects the heart

Poor-quality sleep and heart disease are connected.

We've all heard stories about super snorers, whose snorts and snores rattle windows and awaken the neighbors. Many of these people suffer from sleep apnea. In this condition, the airway becomes blocked, or the muscles that control breathing stop moving. Either way, breathing stops... and then resumes with a gasp. In the worst cases, this can happen hundreds of times every night.

Because sleep apnea sufferers are constantly awakened, they have poor-quality sleep and feel exhausted all day. They may also suffer from poor cardiovascular health. The sleep disorder is found in 47% to 83% of people with cardiovascular disease, 35% of people with high blood pressure, and 12% to 53% of people with heart failure, atrial fibrillation (a heart rhythm abnormality), and stroke. Researchers estimate that untreated sleep apnea may raise the risk of dying from heart disease by up to five times.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea

In sleep apnea, the airway often collapses, blocking airflow. The person awakens hundreds of times a night gasping for air. The body releases a stress hormone which, over time, may raise blood pressure and contribute to heart problems.

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