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Does Untreated Sleep Apnea Lower Life Expectancy?

By John McGuire
Sleep apnea causes you stop breathing for brief periods while you sleep. Far from harmless, the condition can lower your life expectancy in the absence of treatment.

Sleep apnea causes intermittent breathing stoppages during sleep. Many people don’t know they have the condition, and it’s often a bed partner who  first notices that there’s irregular breathing at night. However, diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea are very important, as the condition can have serious consequences for your health. Here's what you need to know about how sleep apnea can impact life expectancy. 

Sleep Apnea and Life Expectancy

There are three main types of sleep apnea: Obstructive, central, and mixed. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type and occurs when the tissues in the mouth, throat, or neck temporarily block the airway when you are sleeping due to improper muscle relaxation. 

According to Mayo Clinic, central sleep apnea occurs when there are impaired brain signals that affect your breathing muscles, whereas mixed sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea.

The effects of sleep apnea are best explained by looking at what happens to the body when the condition is present. With obstructive sleep apnea, during the deepest part of sleep, the mouth and throat tissues are the most relaxed, which leads to airway collapse. Heart rate and oxygen levels then drop until your body has a panic reflex and wakes you just enough to start breathing again. This stress increases your heart rate and blood pressure and can happen several times every hour. 

In the long term, the unhealthy sleep patterns created by sleep apnea can begin to take a serious toll on the body, according to Cleveland Clinic.

The immediate sleep apnea side effects include fatigue, low energy, and cloudy thinking. However, the long-term effects of sleep apnea are much more serious. Here is a list of some of the medical conditions that are associated with sleep apnea, according to Cleveland Clinic:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias)
  • Enlargement of the heart (cardiomyopathy)
  • Heart failure
  • Heart attacks
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

All of these conditions are dangerous and can decrease your life expectancy. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, moderate sleep apnea increases your risk of death by 17%. The impact on life expectancy with untreated severe sleep apnea is even more profound: It roughly doubles your risk of death. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, studies have established that sleep apnea typically decreases life expectancy by several years.

If you are concerned that you may have sleep apnea, it’s critical that you get tested, given there is so much at risk. The diagnosis of sleep apnea is established through a sleep study, known as a polysomnogram, that can be performed at home or in a sleep lab.

Think you may have sleep apnea? Start your journey to more restful sleep TODAY.

Untreated sleep disorders can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. Sleep testing can help you get the answers you need to receive the treatment you deserve. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.