Control sleep apnea

Severe snoring can increase your risk of heart attack

Last updated: February 2013

If you snore, or sleep with someone who does, you may want to find out if you also have sleep apnea. The condition can trigger high blood pressure and possibly type 2 diabetes, both of which up your risk of heart disease. And while as many as one in four men and one in 10 women have the condition, researchers estimate that less than 15 percent of those people have been diagnosed. Here's how to know whether you have sleep apnea, and what to do about it if you do.

Recognize the warning signs

In obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles and tissues in the lower throat collapse, blocking the flow of air to the lungs. The sleeper may stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer. Oxygen levels in the blood drop, triggering an alarm in the brain that stirs the sleeper to resume breathing. The cycle can repeat many times an hour. When breathing stops, the nervous system triggers a spike in blood pressure. And the combination of lost sleep and repeated bouts of oxygen deprivation can inflame the coronary arteries. That inflammation, plus the blood pressure spikes, may cause heart attacks and strokes by damaging blood vessels.

While overweight men face the highest risk, women and normal weight people can also develop sleep apnea. So every snorer should be alert to these signs:

  • Learning from a spouse, partner, or roommate that during sleep you struggle for breath and appear to stop breathing completely at times.
  • Waking up tired, even after a full seven or eight hours in bed.
  • Suffering morning headaches.
  • Struggling to stay awake at work, behind the wheel, or while relaxing.
  • Finding it difficult to concentrate.

If you have any of those symptoms, talk with your doctor. To diagnose the condition, you have to undergo an overnight sleep study that monitors brain activity, breathing, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the blood, and heart rate and rhythm. It's now possible to have a sleep study in your own home, and our consultants say that's a good option for patients who don't live near a sleep lab or who face a long waiting list for testing. But it's better to get a lab-based test because it's more thorough.

Try lifestyle changes first

If you have mild sleep apnea, shedding excess pounds may help. In one recent study, 63 percent of people who lost an average of 23 pounds through diet and exercise were cured of sleep apnea compared with 35 percent of those not enrolled in a weight-loss program. Avoiding alcohol, cigarettes, and sedatives can also help, as can sleeping on your side, which may keep your airways open.

In moderate and severe cases, the most effective treatment is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). A mask connected to a pump blows air into your throat to keep the airway open. Getting used to this can be tough, so it's important to try different masks until you find one that's comfortable. An alternative is a mouthpiece that pushes the lower jaw forward. But that can be even harder to get used to and doesn't work as well. Throat surgery is usually an option of last resort, because its effectiveness is uncertain and often short-lived.

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