It is a common misconception to view sleep apnea as a disease of obese men that leaves them sleepy. In fact, sleep apnea is a pervasive disorder that results in the dysfunction of many organ systems in our body. This association appears to be plainly obvious when it comes to heart disease. The relationship between sleep apnea and heart disease has become better understood in recent years. We know that over 50% of individuals who have heart attacks have sleep apnea. We also know that sleep apnea is a leading cause of hypertension–especially when that hypertension fails to normalize using three or more medications.
We know that the cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation are much more common in people with sleep apnea. We also know that failure to diagnose and treat the sleep apnea will, in most cases, result in frequent recurrences of the atrial fibrillation with a very high risk of associated stroke. In addition, it is not uncommon for people with very slow heart rates detected during sleep to have pacemakers implanted. Unfortunately, in many of these instances, it was the undetected sleep apnea that was the culprit.
Recent studies have revealed how, if untreated, sleep apnea leads to progressive weakness of our heart muscles. Actually, in patients with congestive heart failure, detection and treatment of sleep apnea can be lifesaving. In fact, with treatment of sleep apnea, significant improvement in cardiac function is noted.
These undesirable cardiac disorders are brought about by numerous alterations associated with sleep apnea. There is the severe elevation in blood pressure while asleep. Then there are repeated drops in oxygen that result in the release of tissue-damaging oxygen free radicals. There is also noted to be a release of inflammatory mediators such as CRP (C Reactive Protein) which promote atherosclerosis. Finally, there are pressure changes that occur in our chest cavities in response to attempting to breathe against a closed airway. These make it much harder for the heart to pump and lead to further progressive damage.
Accordingly, if you or a loved one might have this disorder, be aggressive about getting it diagnosed and treated. To ignore it would be the same as ignoring high blood pressure or diabetes. The consequences of not treating it are just as severe. In fact, in many instances, the sleep apnea may be the engine driving the high blood pressure and diabetes.