Harvard Heart Letter

Treating sleep apnea may decrease blood pressure

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Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is marked by a repetitive pattern of held breaths and explosive snores throughout the night. It happens when the tongue or throat tissue blocks the airway (sometimes hundreds of times a night) and is known to raise risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. It's more common in people who are overweight and who have heart disease.

Now, a new study finds that a common treatment for OSA—called continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP—can lower blood pressure in people with OSA who have or are prone to heart disease. Delivered through a bedside machine, CPAP provides a constant stream of air through a face mask, which prevents the back of the throat from collapsing and blocking airflow.

The report, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, compared CPAP, another treatment (supplemental oxygen), and usual care, which included advice on a healthy lifestyle and good sleep habits. After 12 weeks, the average blood pressure levels over a 24-hour period were about 2 points lower in people treated with CPAP compared with the other interventions.

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