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Treating Women's Sleep Apnea May Lower Heart Death Risk

Study: Machine That Keeps Airways Open Is Linked to a Lower Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke Death
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 16, 2012 -- Machines that help keep the airways open during sleep may be lifesaving devices for women with severe sleep apnea, a new study suggests.

People who have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) stop breathing many times during the night. It is much more common in men than in women.

The struggle to start breathing again causes sufferers to snore loudly, snort, or gasp. That often keeps their bed partners from getting rest.

But there’s a greater danger to sleep apnea. It’s a major stress for the heart.

Studies in men have shown that OSA greatly increases the risk of events like heart attacks and strokes.

Researchers weren’t sure if sleep apnea also increased those risks in women or how much treatment of the condition would help.

The new study, which followed more than 1,100 women in Spain for an average of five years, found that women with untreated, severe sleep apnea had 3.5 times the risk of dying from a heart problem or stroke compared to women without the condition.

But treating those breathing interruptions with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which uses pressurized air delivered through a mask to hold the throat open, appeared to even their odds.

Women who used CPAP machines for at least four hours a night had the same risk of dying from a heart attack, stroke, abnormal heart rhythm, or from heart failure as those who did not have the condition.

“I thought this was a good, quality study. It was well designed,” says Milena Pavlova, MD, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“It’s a good thing that they focused on women because a lot of previous research, by taking all comers, ends up having a much higher number of men,” says Pavlova, who studies sleep disorders in women, but was not involved in the research.

“Now we know that sleep apnea is associated with worse [heart disease and stroke] outcomes for women,” and that treatment is associated with reductions in those risks, she says.

Studying the Benefits of CPAP Treatment in Women

For the study, researchers followed women who were referred to sleep clinics in Spain over a nine-year period.

The women were in their 50s and 60s when the study started. And most were overweight or obese. Obesity is known to increase the risk for breathing problems during sleep.

Many of the women also had risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

And about 1 in 5 reported that they’d already had a cardiovascular event, like a heart attack or stroke.

During sleep studies, researchers monitored the women and counted the number of times their breathing slowed or stopped for at least 10 seconds at a time.

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