Can sleep apnea cause death?

Can sleep apnea cause death?
Some of the symptoms of sleep apnea, such as snoring and daytime fatigue, may seem minor, but it is important to know that this disorder can increase your risk of death.

Is it possible to die from sleep apnea?
The answer is YES.
“Sleep apnea can directly cause death by a person’s breathing being infrequent enough to create immediate tissue ischemia (tissue death from lack of oxygen) in the heart and/or brain, resulting in a fatal heart attack or stroke,” Jenna Liphart Rhoads, R.N., Ph.D., and Nurse Educator at NurseTogether said.[1]

If your apnea is mild, it's also important to take it seriously. That's because sleep apnea disrupts circadian rhythms, imbalances body and brain chemistry, interrupts heart and respiratory function, raises blood pressure and increases heart rate. If left untreated, it also certainly leads to increased mortality.[2]
It is a long process that will surely lead to poor quality of life, disability, pain, dysfunction and shortened life span for you.

When you don’t treat sleep apnea
People with untreated sleep apnea include those who do not know they have it, and those who choose not to treat it:
  • are more likely to have a heart attack (Sleep Health Heart Study results, 2001, American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine)
  • have a 2 to 3 times higher risk for having a stroke (Sleep Health Heart Study results, 2010, American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine)
  • face more than 3 times the risk of premature death (18 year follow-up of the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort, 2008, Sleep)[2]
In addition, people who’ve had sleep apnea for up to 5 years have a 30 percent increase in their risk for having a heart attack or dying, according to research conducted at Yale University.

The more severe one’s sleep apnea, the higher the risk for either an attack or death. In the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort follow-up published in Sleep in 2008, 42 percent of the deaths in people with severe sleep apnea were due to heart disease. Severe, in clinical terms, is defined as having an apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) score of 20 or more respiratory events per hour.

Also, the risk of cardiac-related death was more than 5 times higher among those with untreated severe sleep apnea when compared with those who did not have sleep apnea.

Research findings published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 also suggest that people with sleep apnea are more likely to die in their sleep due to sudden cardiac events, whereas most others who die of heart attacks (but who do not have sleep apnea) suffer these events during the day. Low blood-oxygen levels (and high carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream) lead to surges in blood pressure, oxidative stress to the walls of the heart, and disruptions to the heart’s electrical rhythms.[2]

Complications you may have
One way sleep apnea can affect mortality is through complications. Sleep apnea is usually accompanied by the following complications:[3]
  • Daytime fatigue. The repeated awakenings associated with sleep apnea make normal, restorative sleep impossible, making severe daytime drowsiness, fatigue and irritability likely.
You might have difficulty concentrating and find yourself falling asleep at work, while watching TV or even when driving. People with sleep apnea have an increased risk of motor vehicle and workplace accidents.
You might also feel quick-tempered, moody or depressed. Children and adolescents with sleep apnea might perform poorly in school or have behavior problems.
  • High blood pressure or heart problems. Sudden drops in blood oxygen levels that occur during sleep apnea increase blood pressure and strain the cardiovascular system. Having obstructive sleep apnea increases your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension).
Obstructive sleep apnea might also increase your risk of recurrent heart attack, stroke and abnormal heartbeats, such as atrial fibrillation. If you have heart disease, multiple episodes of low blood oxygen (hypoxia or hypoxemia) can lead to sudden death from an irregular heartbeat.
  • Type 2 diabetes. Having sleep apnea increases your risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
  • Metabolic syndrome. This disorder, which includes high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood sugar and an increased waist circumference, is linked to a higher risk of heart disease.
  • Complications with medications and surgery. Obstructive sleep apnea is also a concern with certain medications and general anesthesia. People with sleep apnea might be more likely to have complications after major surgery because they're prone to breathing problems, especially when sedated and lying on their backs.
Before you have surgery, tell your doctor about your sleep apnea and how it's being treated.
  • Liver problems. People with sleep apnea are more likely to have abnormal results on liver function tests, and their livers are more likely to show signs of scarring (nonalcoholic fatty liver disease).
  • Sleep-deprived partners. Loud snoring can keep anyone who sleeps near you from getting good rest. It's not uncommon for a partner to have to go to another room, or even to another floor of the house, to be able to sleep.

If you or a loved one you know has sleep apnea, don't hesitate to insist on treatment!

1., By Lan Pham, Kyle Kirkland
2. accessed 25 June 2019.
3. accessed 25 June 2019
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