By Amy Norton
WEDNESDAY, June 11, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Treating sleep apnea might lead to more than a better night's sleep. It can also reduce blood pressure and other threats to heart health, two new studies show.
Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which the airways constrict during sleep, leading to repeated stops and starts in breathing. The telltale signs include chronic loud snoring, with periodic gasps or choking -- and, for many people, daytime drowsiness because of poor sleep.
But the new studies, reported June 12 in the New England Journal of Medicine, turned up some good news. The most common treatment for sleep apnea -- continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) -- can curb high blood pressure in people with existing heart disease, one study showed.
Experts said the findings underscore the importance of detecting sleep apnea, which affects 18 million American adults, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
"Sleep apnea is quite common, but it often goes undiagnosed," said Dr. Daniel Gottlieb, a sleep specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who led one of the studies.
The patients were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: education on good sleep habits, or either supplemental oxygen or a CPAP machine to be used at night.
CPAP is the treatment of choice for sleep apnea. The device comes with a mask that covers the mouth and nose, sending pressurized air into the throat. That keeps the throat structures from constricting and cutting off oxygen, but it can also be unpleasant.