The Effect of Sleep Apnea on the Heart

According to a study funded by the National, Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), individuals with obstructive sleep apnea are prone to sudden death due to cardiac arrest. Based on NHLBI’s data, there are around 12 million Americans with obstructive sleep apnea, and there are still more that are undiagnosed. Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder wherein there are pauses in breathing while the person is asleep. This sleep disorder is caused by obstructions and blockages in the airways.

In the study conducted by the NHLBI, 10,701 Americans with sleep apnea were observed. The researchers followed the participants for more than five years, and in that period 142 participants died because of sudden cardiac arrest. The most common predictors of their sudden deaths were age (60 years and older), low oxygen saturation during sleep (less than 78%), and more than 20 episodes of sleep apnea per hour during sleep.

According to Virend Somers, M.D., PhD, senior author of the study and a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, people with obstructive sleep apnea have a twofold risk of sudden death. This is especially prevalent among people who have a low oxygen saturation during sleep, and have at least 20 episodes of apnea per hour of sleep.

Dr. Somer said that the oxygen saturation level of a person with no sleeping disorders is 100%; the oxygen that is inhaled fully reaches the lungs during sleep. He further added, that their participants that have sleep apnea only have 78% oxygen saturation level, and the lower the oxygen saturation level is, the higher the risk the patients will die due to sudden cardiac failure.

In another study conducted by Mayo Clinic, the time of death due to sudden cardiac failure among people with sleep apnea and those without the sleep disorder was found to be different. According to Dr. Apoor Gami, the lead author of the study, people with sleep apnea usually die usually from 12 am to 6 am, when they are asleep. While those without sleep apnea and suffer from sudden cardiac death die at about 6 am to 12pm. Dr. Gami added that their research proved that sleep apnea changes the time of death among those prone to sudden death due to cardiac arrest. He also reiterated that sleep apnea can indeed independently contribute to the occurrence of sudden death due to cardiac failure.

Dr. Gamil further added that the incidence of sudden deaths because of cardiac failure will exponentially increase among Americans. He said that since obesity is linked to obstructive sleep apnea, and since more and more Americans are becoming obese, it is expected that more Americans will suddenly die from sudden cardiac arrest.

Other researchers have also proven that sleep apnea is a contributing factor for cardiovascular problems, such as atrial fibrillation, high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks.

 Dr. Gamil concluded that sleep apnea may be treated and prevented. Lifestyle changes are usually effective like sleeping on your side instead of the back, and maintaining a healthy weight. Oral machines may also help people with sleep apnea. However, when lifestyle change and oral machines do not work, one may undergo surgery to open up air passageways. is an authority on sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.