Why Is Sleep Apnea Bad for the Heart?
Experts aren’t entirely sure why sleep apnea is so bad for the heart, but they have some working theories.
“There are two pathways through which it can worsen health. The first is through low oxygen, the second is through the frequent arousals,” says Pavlova.
But studies in animals have shown that interrupted breathing can lead to periods of low blood oxygen.
This low oxygen is thought to trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, which raises blood pressure in the lungs and makes blood clot more easily, increasing the risk for events like heart attacks and strokes.
A second problem is that the body has to fight to breathe once the airway gets blocked.
“As a result of the strain to breathe, there is a response from the body to wake up, to take a better breath,” Pavlova says.
Recognizing Apnea Can Be Harder in Women
Even though sleep apnea can have serious health consequences, it often goes undiagnosed.
Partly, that’s because people with apnea aren’t aware that they snore or gasp as they start or stop breathing. Often a bed partner is the one to notice those symptoms.
And doctors may not spot the condition during a routine exam because women’s symptoms may seem different than men’s.
Pavlova says women with apnea are less likely to complain about daytime sleepiness than men are, for example.
More commonly, she says, breathing problems keep women from falling asleep or staying asleep.
“So in a woman who has snoring or difficulty falling asleep, I’d recommend an evaluation,” she says.