Previous studies have linked severe sleep apnea to strokes in middle-aged adults, but researchers say this is the first study to show an increased risk associated with the sleep disorder among older adults.
More than 18 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, but many aren't aware of it. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep for 10 seconds or longer due to a blockage or narrowing of the airway in the nose, mouth, or throat.
Sleep apnea can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the number of times breathing is interrupted.
Sleep Apnea Linked to Stroke Risk
In the study, published in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers followed nearly 400 adults between the ages of 70 and 100 for six years. Each was evaluated for sleep apnea at the start of the study.
During the study period, 20 strokes were reported. Participants with previously undiagnosed severe sleep apnea were 2.5 times more likely to have a stroke, regardless of their other traditional stroke risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, and cholesterol levels.
Researcher Roberto Munoz, MD, and colleagues at the Hospital de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain say the findings add to recent studies that suggest sleep apnea may be a risk factor for stroke.
For example, a 2005 study in middle-aged adults, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed those with sleep apnea were three times more likely to suffer a stroke.
Researchers say that until now it was believed that undiagnosed severe sleep apnea among the elderly was less of a health risk compared with middle-aged people. But they say this study highlights the need for screening for the sleep disorder in older as well as younger people.