November 26, 2020

Why Sleep Apnea Raises Your Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death

Sleeping disorder may increase danger of cardiac event

man asleep wearing CPAP

Obstructive sleep apnea is common and linked to many medical problems. One common problem you may not be aware of is sudden cardiac arrest.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

“When you have obstructive sleep apnea, not only are you likely to wake up with a headache and fall asleep during the day, but you’re also at risk of dying suddenly,” says cardiologist Bruce Wilkoff, MD. “For most patients, sudden death is not caused by a heart attack, but by abnormal heart rhythms.”

Sleep apnea is diagnosed when you stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer — at least five times an hour — during sleep.

Researchers suspect sleep apnea causes abnormal heart rhythms, which lead to sudden cardiac death, for a number of reasons.

“Sleep apnea may lower oxygen levels, activate the fight-or-flight response and change pressure in the chest when the upper airway closes, stressing the heart mechanically,” he explains.

It may increase inflammation and cause unhealthy changes in blood vessels as well.

Advertisement

Know the symptoms

Sleep apnea affects about 12 million Americans, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, many of whom have not been undiagnosed. Symptoms include:

  • Loud snoring.
  • Stopped breathing during sleep, observed.
  • Daytime sleepiness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Drowsy driving.
  • Waking up short of breath.
  • Waking up frequently to urinate without apparent cause.
  • Chest pain during sleep.

If you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to talk to your doctor. A visit to a sleep medicine specialist may be in order.

What the research shows

“Early identification and treatment of sleep apnea are key,” he says. “Several studies now link severe obstructive sleep apnea to higher mortality — even after accounting for risk factors such as obesity.”

In a five-year study of nearly 11,000 people, those with obstructive sleep apnea had a higher risk of sudden cardiac death. At greatest risk were those aged 60 and older with moderate to severe apnea (20 episodes an hour).

When their oxygen saturation levels dipped below 78% — preventing air from flowing into the lungs — their risk increased by 80%.

Advertisement

“In addition, our group has shown that people with severe obstructive sleep apnea have a two-to-fourfold greater risk of abnormal heart rhythms than people without sleep apnea,” he says.

Other researchers have found that patients with obstructive sleep apnea are more than 2.5 times as likely to experience sudden cardiac death between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. as those without obstructive apnea.

If you suspect sleep apnea

Think you may have sleep apnea? It’s important to have it checked. Sleep apnea can lead to other heart health problems and impaired performance on the job or at school. Your doctor may suggest a sleep evaluation.

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

Related Articles

person snoring in bed with partner
November 14, 2023
Could You Have Sleep Apnea Without Knowing It?

Ignoring the warning signs could put you at risk for serious health issues

Person sleeping in bed with tape on mouth to stop snoring.
September 7, 2022
Mouth Taping: Is It Safe?

Mouth taping isn’t a recommended treatment for sleep apnea or snoring

man in bed with home apnea test
April 10, 2022
What Are At-Home Sleep Apnea Tests?

Here’s what to know from a sleep medicine specialist

man tired and yawning at work
November 22, 2021
Why Sleep Apnea Can Cause Memory Problems Earlier in Life

This connection is yet another reason to seek help for OSA

Person laying in bed looking concerned
March 30, 2021
I’m Having AFib at Night: Should I Be Worried?

The short answer from a cardiovascular researcher

Illustration of person with cardiad arrest
December 10, 2020
Sudden Cardiac Arrest: 5 Things Raise Your Risk

Preventive steps to take plus what to do in an emergency

woman covering ears while husband snores in bed
November 4, 2020
Is Your Spouse a Heroic Snorer? 3 Tips to Quieter Sleep

Heroic snoring can be associated with obstructive sleep apnea

woman frightened with chest pain
October 11, 2020
It’s True (But Rare) That You Can Be Scared to Death

Unexpected scares can have powerful effects on your body

Trending Topics

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try

Exercise and diet over three months is hard to accomplish.
Everything You Need To Know About the 75 Hard Challenge

Following five critical rules daily for 75 days may not be sustainable

Person in foreground standing in front of many presents with person in background holding gift bags.
What Is Love Bombing?

This form of psychological and emotional abuse is often disguised as excessive flattery

Ad