Sleep apnea is a common condition that affects many Americans from all walks of life. Although it is frequently associated with certain populations (it is more prevalent in men, smokers, and overweight individuals, as well as within certain ethnic groups) it can affect anyone. Sleep apnea involves temporary cessation of breathing during sleep, and can range from mild (fewer than five instances every hour) to severe (more than thirty instances within an hour). Although many people associate sleep apnea with insomnia and snoring, when left untreated, it can have even more serious consequences – including an increased risk of heart problems.
Although no causal link between sleep apnea and heart disease has been established, studies have shown a correlation between the disorder and sudden cardiac arrest, arrhythmias, and other heart problems. Researchers have speculated that the changes in oxygen saturation in the blood caused by periodic stoppages in breathing throughout the night interfere with normal electrical patterns in the heart, increasing the risk of dangerous irregularities in rhythm that can lead to heart attack. Similarly, sleep apnea is associated with high blood pressure; periodic waking or changes in the sleep cycle are often accompanied by a spike in blood pressure, due to activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This in turn can put more stress on the heart.
There are other ways in which sleep apnea may be correlated with heart disease. Obesity is a strong risk factor for both sleep apnea and heart disease; addressing obesity may help to combat both problems at once. Although treating sleep apnea may not completely eliminate the risk of sudden cardiac arrest, heart failure, and other heart problems, addressing the disorder is an important step toward better heart health. Detecting and treating sleep apnea as early as possible may help to prevent or ameliorate potentially serious conditions like heart disease.
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