Sleep apnea can cause health problems with your heart, lungs, and even your brain. Any of these problems can be cause for concern, but there is another potential problem that can result from sleep apnea: Death. Here’s what you need to know about the mortality risks associated with sleep apnea.
Can sleep apnea cause death?
“Sleep apnea and death are directly related,” Chad Denman, D.M.D. and Sleep Specialist at Sleep Cycle Center, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
One way sleep apnea can affect mortality is through complications. “People who struggle with obstructive sleep apnea have a 30% higher risk of heart attack or premature death, with the mortality rate peaking around age 55,” Denman says.
Apneic episodes resulting from disorder can also contribute to mortality risk. “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, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
“Sleep apnea is related to a host of other medical conditions, like heart disease, thyroid disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. All of these medical conditions can cause death, so a patient suffering from sleep apnea can die as a direct result of sleep apnea (not breathing) or indirectly through a variety of medical conditions,” Denman explains.
Cleveland Clinic notes that sleep apnea can also cause sudden cardiac arrest: the instantaneous and complete stoppage of your heart. Sudden cardiac arrest results in death within minutes in the absence of intervention—which is unlikely to be administered if you are asleep and no one is aware that your heart has stopped.
Researchers have observed that sleep apnea results in numerous stressors on the heart. They theorize that sudden cardiac death with sleep apnea could be rooted in irregular heart rhythms resulting from these stressors, which include:
- Activation of the fight-or-flight response
- Lowered oxygen levels
- Pressure changes in the chest due to upper airway obstruction
Fortunately, evidence shows that successful treatment of sleep apnea can reduce mortality risks. A 2020 study published by ERJ Open Research tracked a cohort of obstructive sleep apnea patients for 30 years and found that long-term treatment with CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy reduced mortality while also decreasing the occurrence of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
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