Sleep Apnea Can Pose Serious Threats to You and Others if It’s Not Diagnosed and Treated from Everyday Health

March 6, 2022

By Katherine Lee

Sleep apnea is a common and potentially serious sleep disorder. It causes you to stop breathing temporarily and occurs repeatedly during sleep. These pauses in breathing can happen as many as hundreds of times in one night. Your brain registers what’s going on and wakes you up, though sometimes only partially or for such short moments you may not even realize the arousals, notes the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Because the primary symptoms of sleep apnea — the pauses in breathing and the gasping and snoring that can accompany them — occur during sleep, many people with sleep apnea may not even realize it’s happening.

Great — if you don’t even know you’re experiencing symptoms they can’t bother you, right? Wrong. That’s definitely not the case when it comes to sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea, particularly when the disorder goes undiagnosed or untreated, has been linked to a wide-array of health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even glaucoma, and it may also increase your risk of death. Additionally, the fatigue you may experience — thanks to continuously being woken up during the night — can lead to accidents that could pose a threat to you or others around you.

A recent large meta-analysis of 22 studies involving 42,099 adults (average age was 62) found that those with sleep apnea had a twofold increased risk of sudden death from any cause, as well as risk of death from heart disease, compared with those without sleep apnea. The report was published in June 2021 in the journal BMJ Open Respiratory Research.

Overactivation of the nervous system during sleep — an attempt to get the body to breathe again and to increase blood oxygen levels — as well as inflammation, higher risk for blood clots, and cell damage caused by oxidative stress may help explain the high death risk, the researchers note.

“It’s a huge public health challenge,” says Ronald Chervin, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Centers and professor of sleep medicine and of neurology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Here’s why those small pauses in breathing that happen because of sleep apnea can lead to some serious complications if you ignore the problem.

Health Problems That Can Happen When Sleep Apnea Goes Untreated or Mismanaged

Sleep apnea can take a toll on the body and lead to a number of negative physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral effects, according to an article published in March 2015 in Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders.
“There’s increasing evidence that sleep apnea is linked to systemic inflammation,” Dr. Chervin says.

When those pauses in breathing happen, the oxygen levels in your blood drop, which triggers your brain to increase your heart rate and blood pressure (the fight-or-flight stress response) to wake you up, so you start breathing again. You likely don’t notice it happening, but these chronic cycles of accelerated heart rate and increased blood pressure increase inflammation throughout the body.

And that’s a problem because chronic inflammation can contribute to buildup of plaque in the arteries (atherosclerosis), which can strain the cardiovascular system and increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. Chronic inflammation can also damage the pancreas and cause type 2 diabetes.

“There’s good evidence that having obstructive sleep apnea puts you at increased risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and death,” says James Rowley, MD, professor of medicine and division chief of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit.

Though for other complications that have been linked to sleep apnea, it’s still unclear whether having sleep apnea puts you at a higher risk for the condition, or if sleep apnea is actually a result of having the underlying condition, explains says Chervin. “It’s not clear which is causing which,” he says. This is the case for complications, such as asthma and metabolic syndrome.

Regardless of causes, the list of health conditions you should be aware of that can be related to sleep apnea include:

  • Metabolic Syndrome This cluster of risk factors, including high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, elevated blood sugar, and excess body fat, which increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes, can be related to sleep apnea.
  • Heart Disease Atrial fibrillation, heart attack, and heart failure are associated with sleep apnea.
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Glaucoma Decreased oxygen to the optic nerve due to sleep apnea results in nerve damage, which scientists believe may increase glaucoma risk, according to a review published in the September–December 2016 issue of the Oman Journal of Ophthalmology
  • Pregnancy Complications Pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes, gestational high blood pressure, and preeclampsia, may be related to sleep apnea, according to research published in January 2017 in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.
  • Asthma Research has shown that prevalence of asthma is high among people who have sleep apnea, and that the relationship also goes the other way — many sleep apnea patients are likely to experience asthma symptoms, according to a review published in June 2017 in the journal Scientific Reports.
  • Liver Damage Research has found that sleep apnea can worsen nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in adults and adolescents, and the severity of the liver disease was linked to the severity of the sleep apnea, according to data published in September 2016 in the Journal of Hepatology.

Cognitive and Mental Health Complications Linked to Undiagnosed Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea that is undiagnosed or untreated can also put you at greater risk for neurocognitive problems and have detrimental effects on your mood. Because sleep apnea chronically prevents you from having normal, restorative sleep, it can lead to problems, such as:

  • Daytime sleepiness and fatigue
  • Attention problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Problems with memory
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Decreased sex drive, per MedlinePlus
  • Poor school performance (in children with sleep apnea)

Don’t forget that sleep apnea also frequently causes people with the condition to snore or make gasping noises during their sleep, which can affect — and disturb — their partner’s sleep, too. So consider sleep deprivation in partners a potential complication of sleep apnea, too, which can strain your partner’s health and your relationship.

Because of the physical, cognitive, and psychological damage this sleep disorder can cause over time when it isn’t properly treated, undiagnosed sleep apnea can take a toll on your well-being, and increase your risk for death. Sleep apnea that is untreated is a ticking time bomb that may not go off after one or two nights, but over time the damage the condition causes can be deadly, Dr. Rowley explains.

Why Sleep Apnea Is an Underestimated Public Danger

Finally, beyond the complications that undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnea can pose to your health and well-being (and that of your sleep partner), it can also be a public health threat.

Unaddressed sleep apnea causes daytime fatigue, which can lessen concentration and attention, or cause you to fall asleep unintentionally, which can lead to workplace accidents or motor vehicle crashes. Several train crashes have been linked to train engineers falling asleep on the job, with undiagnosed sleep apnea eventually being found to be the underlying cause, according to an article published in February 2018 in The New York Times.

Drivers who have untreated sleep apnea can be a danger to themselves as well as anyone else they encounter on the road. Truck drivers, who are on the road making long, monotonous trips and often driving at night can pose a particular risk.

A study published in May 2016 in the journal Sleep found that truck drivers who fail to follow their recommended sleep apnea treatments were at a fivefold higher risk of getting into a preventable crash than truck drivers without the sleep disorder.

“Plus, there’s a high prevalence of sleep apnea in long haul truck drivers,” Chervin says. Some possible reasons include the fact that these drivers tend to be middle-aged men, are sedentary, eat out (usually unhealthy fast food), and tend to have poor sleep habits to begin with because of their work schedules (which can contribute to weight gain), Chervin says.

Read, “Sleep Apnea Can Pose Serious Threats to You and Others if It’s Not Diagnosed and Treated” from Everyday Health

Sleep Apnea Can Pose Serious Threats to You and Others if It’s Not Diagnosed and Treated from Everyday Health
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