Over the years, I have written and spoken about the dangers of untreated sleep apnea. We know that it is associated with an increased incidence of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Additionally, numerous studies show that those with untreated sleep apnea tend to die at a younger age. In fact, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 titled Obstructive Sleep Apnea as a Risk Factor for Stroke and Death, the chances of having a stroke or dying was double in those with sleep apnea when followed over several years.
I am frequently confronted by skeptical patients, listeners, and readers. They usually want to know how sleep apnea can cause these numerous problems. On occasion, someone has asked, “How do I know you aren’t just making this stuff up?” I perfectly understand their skepticism. After all, the field of sleep medicine is one of the newest of the medical disciplines and we are only recently coming to understand the importance of sleep in regards to our health.
A study published in the journal Sleep Medicine in 2014 titled The History of Sleep Apnea is Associated with Shorter Leukocyte Telomere Length: the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study recently caught my eye. I was in the process of preparing a talk on the subject of sleep apnea and premature death when I came across it. In the study, the authors were able to demonstrate the premature shortening of telomeres in people with sleep apnea.
Telomeres are the protective protein caps at the end of chromosomes that affect how quickly cells age. In recent years, shorter telomeres have become associated with a broad range of ageing-related diseases, including many forms of cancer, stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and diabetes.
We believe that telomeres can be damaged by a process called oxidative stress. This is brought on by repetitive and rapid decreases in blood oxygen levels. This results in the formation of damaging free radicals. Unfortunately, this very process goes on nightly in people with undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnea.
The importance of this and other studies is that we are now gaining insight into the actual mechanisms that cause the damage in untreated sleep disorders. When I first started in this field, we had population studies that clearly demonstrated the risk of untreated sleep apnea. What was lacking was knowledge of the actual dysfunctional mechanisms responsible for the unfortunate consequences.
The take home message is that we now clearly understand the dangers of sleep apnea. As I mention in my book Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day, it is estimated that one in every fifteen Americans has sleep apnea, or close to 7% of the population. Unfortunately, only 20% of those have been diagnosed and are being treated. That leaves many of our fellow Americans at great risk for an unnecessary and premature death. If you or a loved one snores chronically or has other symptoms associated with sleep apnea such as sleepiness, fatigue, frequent night time urination, morning headaches, or problems with memory, make sure to discuss it with your health care provider. Sleep apnea is easy to diagnose and treat.