14 Ways Sleep Apnea Can Hurt Your Health

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on September 29, 2022
5 min read


Snoring can make for a bad night’s sleep, for you and your bed mate. But if it happens because you have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), it’s a sign of a bigger problem. Twenty-six percent of people in the U.S. between 30 and 70 have OSA, and many haven’t been diagnosed with it. 

If you’re African-American, Asian, or Hispanic,  you are also more likely to have OSA.

The condition raises your risk for other health issues like high blood pressure and diabetes. It can even make you more dangerous on the road. But when you treat sleep apnea, you can ease daytime sleepiness.

Complications Linked to Sleep Apnea

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease 
  • Heart failure
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Weight gain
  • Metabolic syndrome 
  • Adult asthma 
  • Acid reflux
  • Brain fog
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Car accidents
  • Memory loss
  • Depression

1. High blood pressure. If you already have it, sleep apnea can make it worse. When you wake up often during the night, your body gets stressed. That makes your hormone systems go into overdrive, which boosts your blood pressure levels. Also, the level of oxygen in your blood drops when you can’t breathe well, which may add to the problem.

Treatment can make a difference, though. Some people with high BP who get help for sleep apnea will see their blood pressure improve. Their doctors may be able to cut back on their BP medications. (But you shouldn’t stop or change your dose without talking to your doctor first.)

2. Heart disease. People with OSA are more likely to have heart attacks.

The cause may be low oxygen. Strokes and atrial fibrillation -- a fast, fluttering heartbeat -- are also linked with the condition.

Sleep apnea disrupts how your body takes in oxygen, which makes it hard for your brain to control how blood flows in your arteries and the brain itself.

3. Heart failure. If you have OSA, you could also get what’s called pulmonary hypertension or right-sided heart failure (RHF). This happens when your right ventricle is too weak to pump enough blood to your lungs. So the blood builds up in your veins, and fluid is pushed back into tissue, causing swelling. One symptom of right-sided heart failure is swelling in your feet, ankles, and legs. RHF can lead to congestive heart failure.

4. Stroke. Because OSA can reduce the blood flow to your brain, it puts you at an increased risk for what’s called an ischemic stroke. This happens when a blood vessel to the brain is blocked. Possible reasons for this include reduced blood flow to the brain and that the body is not getting enough oxygen. 

People are up to 25% more likely to have these types of strokes while sleeping, because they happen very early in the morning, during REM sleep.

5. Type 2 diabetes. Sleep apnea is common among people with this condition -- 80% or more of them may have OSA.

Obesity raises a person’s risk for both disorders. Although studies haven’t shown a cause-and-effect link between sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes, not getting enough shut-eye can keep your body from using insulin properly, which leads to diabetes.

6. Weight gain. Extra pounds raise your chances of getting sleep apnea, and the condition also makes it harder to slim down. Experts think obesity may be a big reason for substantially increased OSA cases in the last 2 decades.

What happens when you’reoverweight? You can have fatty deposits in your neck that block breathing at night. On the flip side, sleep apnea can make your body release more of the hormone ghrelin, which makes you crave carbs and sweets. And when you're tired all the time, you might not be able to turn the food you eat into energy as efficiently, which can lead to weight gain.

The good news? Treatment for OSA can make you feel better, with more energy for exercise and other activities. This can help you lose weight, which can help with your sleep apnea. The most common treatment for OSA is CPAP therapy, or continuous positive airway Pressure.  A CPAP machine is used along with a mask or nosepiece to provide constant, steady air pressure.

7. Metabolic syndrome. This is a group of health conditions that has been linked with OSA. Metabolic syndrome means you have at least three of these conditions:

Metabolic syndrome can make you more likely to get heart disease, diabetes, or stroke, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about treatment and healthy lifestyle changes.

8. Adult asthma. Science hasn’t proven a link to OSA, but people who get sleep apnea treatment may find they have fewer asthma attacks.

9. Acid reflux. There’s no proof that sleep apnea causes this kind of heartburn, but many people say it’s a problem. Treating reflux seems to improve apnea symptoms for some people, and treating OSA helps symptoms of reflux, sleep doctors say.

10. Brain fog. If you are feeling distracted, forgetful, slow to react, and your thinking is muddled, you may have brain fog. Those feelings go hand-in-hand with untreated sleep apnea. A 2011 study found that you can improve your memory, attention, and critical thinking after 3 months of CPAP therapy for OSA. 

11. Daytime sleepiness. The sun’s up, yet you feel tired. That’s a common symptom of OSA. It can take a toll on everything from your mood to how clearly you think. Getting treatment for sleep apnea can improve your shut-eye and help you feel less fatigued during the day.

12. Car accidents. When you feel groggy, you raise your risk of falling asleep at the wheel. People with sleep apnea are up to five times more likely than normal sleepers to have traffic accidents.

13. Memory loss. Some older people have more memory slips or thinking problems than other folks their age. Doctors call this mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The symptoms aren’t as severe as dementia, and not everyone with MCI goes on to get dementia. Research suggests that memory slips from MCI might show up sooner when someone has a “sleep-disordered breathing” condition like obstructive sleep apnea. Getting treatment for OSA might delay memory troubles from getting worse, though.

14. Depression. Poor sleep might make you more likely to get depressed. And depression may raise your chances of getting worse shut-eye. If you have OSA and you’ve been feeling sad for a while, talk to your doctor. They can give you treatments that lift your mood and improve your ZZZs.