Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Treating sleep apnea may pay off for the heart

Heart Beat

Treating sleep apnea may pay off for the heart

Sleep apnea — pauses in breathing during sleep that lead to explosive snoring or gasping for breath — is hard on the body. It causes daytime drowsiness, boosts blood pressure, and may even shorten life. Two studies suggest that sleep apnea can lead to heart rhythm problems, and that correcting the sleep problem may improve heart function.

In a sleep study that included nearly 3,000 older men, those with the most severe sleep apnea had the highest chances of showing a disturbed heart rhythm while they slept. Obstructive sleep apnea, which is caused by a temporary closing of the airway, was linked to rhythm problems in the ventricles. The less-common central sleep apnea, which occurs because the brain temporarily stops sending signals to the muscles that control breathing, was linked to atrial fibrillation (Archives of Internal Medicine, June 22, 2009).

A small Brazilian study demonstrated that treating sleep apnea for six months with a breathing machine reversed harmful changes in the shape of the heart and improved the function of the left atrium (American Society of Echocardiography meeting, June 8, 2009). The findings support hints from earlier studies that treating sleep apnea may halt or reverse the damage it can cause. Better information on whether continuous positive airway pressure machines help the heart as they ease sleep apnea will come from the ongoing Sleep Apnea Cardiovascular Endpoints trial, scheduled to finish in 2014.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »