July 13th, 2010
02:04 PM ET
Adults with sleep apnea often have more heart trouble than those who sleep soundly, new research from the American Heart Association finds. Unfortunately 90 percent of the people with sleep apnea have never had an official diagnosis, so if a loved one says you gasp for air as you sleep, don't ignore the news.
Sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing becomes shallow or stops altogether during sleep. It can result in extreme fatigue .
Researchers looked at almost 4,500 adults 40 and older who were free of heart problems when the study began. All adults were tested for sleep apnea and then for the next eight years researchers kept track of the differences in the heart health of those with the condition and those without.
The researchers also discovered that men under the age of 70 were at much higher risk of developing coronary heart disease, a condition in which fat deposits clog blood vessels, which can lead to chest pain, blockages or a heart attack. This is different from congestive heart failure, which is a continued weakening of the heart, leaving it less and less able to pump enough blood to keep the body going.
Women in the study didn't suffer from these heart and vessel problems and researchers aren't sure whether it's because women as a group have less sleep apnea than men or because of other factors. Gottlieb says more research is needed to understand the differences in the sexes.
Researchers suspect the connection between sleep apnea and heart trouble all begins with the shutting off of air as you sleep. Patients gasp for breath as their throats narrow or collapse preventing the flow of air into the lungs. The lack of oxygen sets the body into a type of panic raising blood pressure, stressing the heart, and pouring sugar into the blood.
Gottlieb says those in the study with severe cases had an average of 30 breathing interruptions per hour lasting at least 10 seconds.
About 70 percent of patients suffering from the condition are obese and it's believed added fat in the upper airway may be partly to blame. Sleep apnea is more common in those with diabetes and high blood pressure.
Fortunately getting treatment can make a great difference. Therapies include using a device to keep the airway open during sleep, or an oral appliance that is worn at night, and in some cases surgery.
"Sleep apnea is a very treatable condition and it appears that treatment may prevent the adverse health consequences of sleep apnea including heart disease, heart attack, stroke and congestive heart failure," explains Gottlieb.
Dr. Richard Stein cardiologist and spokesperson for the American Heart Association says weight loss through diet and exercise may help those battling the condition.
He adds, "If you are obese, hypertensive or diabetic, if your partner in bed says you are snorting or snoring, if you're waking up unrested, you should go to your doctor and ask if you have sleep apnea."
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