Harvard Health Letter

Reduce your stroke risk

Protect your brain with a sleep apnea diagnosis.

Controlling heart disease, cholesterol, and hypertension are all good ways to help prevent a stroke. Now doctors are also urging you to get obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) diagnosed and under control. The idea has been gaining favor for the past few years, and the latest to join the chorus are the participants of the Canadian Stroke Congress, who recently added OSA diagnosis to their stroke care guidelines. Harvard sleep expert Dr. Lawrence Epstein agrees. "A person with untreated OSA has an increased risk of having a stroke, a fatal stroke, and a second stroke compared to those without sleep apnea," says Dr. Epstein, who's also an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The connection

A stroke occurs when an artery that supplies blood to the brain becomes blocked or bursts. Without blood, brain cells go without oxygen and begin to die.

OSA is a condition that occurs during sleep: you stop breathing for a few seconds because your airway is blocked. Muscles in the back of your throat normally keep your airway open, but if they relax, the airway becomes blocked. OSA episodes can occur dozens of times per hour. This interruption of your sleep makes you tired the next day, and it also affects your heart and blood vessels.

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