Sleep Apnea May Raise Risk of Sudden Death

Sleeping disorder may increase danger of cardiac event

Sleep apnea may significantly increase the risk of sudden cardiac death, says a new study.

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Sleep apnea is diagnosed when a person stops breathing for 10 seconds or longer at least five times an hour during sleep. The new study finds that even a moderate case of sleep apnea may raise the risk of sudden cardiac arrest.

Bruce Wilkoff, MD, did not take part in the study but is a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic. He emphasized the seriousness of the findings.

“Waking up with a headache or falling asleep during the day wouldn’t be your only problems,” Dr. Wilkoff says of the potential dangers of sleep apnea. “You’re also at risk for dying suddenly.”

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Reduced air flow to lungs dangerous

Researchers at Midwest Heart Specialists followed nearly 11,000 people for an average of five years for incidents of sudden cardiac arrest, fatal or resuscitated. They found that those aged 60 or older who had 20 apnea episodes an hour — with an oxygen saturation level below 78 percent — are most at-risk for sudden cardiac death.

Low oxygen saturation occurs when air doesn’t flow into the lungs. When oxygen saturation drops below 78 percent the patient’s risk of sudden cardiac death increases by 80 percent.

Twenty episodes an hour is considered moderate sleep apnea.

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Sleep apnea affects about 12 million Americans, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and many are undiagnosed.

The most common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Morning drowsiness and daytime fatigue
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Sudden awakenings during the night with sensations of gasping and choking
  • Trouble concentrating, forgetfulness or irritability
  • Headaches

If you suspect you have sleep apnea

If you think you have sleep apnea, it’s important to get it checked because it can lead to other heart health problems, as well as to daily impairment on the job or at school. Your doctor may suggest you get a sleep evaluation in a sleep disorder center, or other treatment.

Dr. Wilkoff adds not only could getting treated for sleep apnea reduce your risk of a dangerous cardiac event, “It will make you sleep better and feel better all around.”