Sleep Apnea Especially Dangerous for Women’s Hearts

New study points out need for increased awareness
Older woman sleeping and snoring occasionally

Obstructive sleep apnea ― a condition that’s often accompanied by severe snoring ― is a common, yet dangerous sleep disorder that involves short periods of stopped breathing during sleep.

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A recent study shows the condition may put people, especially women, at risk for heart problems.

The study looked at data on 4,877 people available through UK Biobank. Results showed that for men and women who reported obstructive sleep apnea or snoring, heart imaging revealed an increased thickness in the left ventricular wall, which is the heart’s main pumping chamber.

However, the difference in thickness was greater for women.

Why these findings are important

Reena Mehra, MD, MS, Director of Sleep Disorders Research, did not take part in the research, but says sleep apnea risks do vary between men and women.

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“There are known sex-specific differences in obstructive sleep apnea, in terms of risk across the lifespan and symptoms,” Dr. Mehra says. “We know that obstructive sleep apnea is two to five times more common in men than it is in women. But when women become post-menopausal, their risk for obstructive sleep apnea actually increases.”

The study results, she says, suggest the changes in the hearts of the snoring group could be an indication of undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea in these women.

Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed

Many people aren’t aware of the increased risk of obstructive sleep apnea that women face as they age. The increased risk that occurs post-menopause could be due to hormonal changes, Dr. Mehra says, but could also be a result of functional changes in the upper airway.

Women can maybe snore. They may have more fatigue than sleepiness during the daytime. They may have more depression or insomnia. And because sleep apnea is more prevalent in men than women, it may be that we’re looking for it more in men than in women.

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The results point to why it’s so important for both men and women to have obstructive sleep apnea diagnosed and treated, Dr. Mehra says.

Help for OSA is available

There are several treatments available for obstructive sleep apnea, the most common being positive airway pressure through the use of a C-PAP machine.

Dr. Mehra says diagnosing OSA is essential. If left untreated, over time, it’s associated with many negative health outcomes, including sudden, unexpected, nocturnal cardiac death.

“Obstructive sleep apnea is more than just snoring,” she explains. “It can have detriment on quality of life, and our heart health. So those are the two big reasons to treat it.”

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