Our hearts are incredible. They literally keep us alive. They send blood around our body, they provide us with the oxygen and the nutrients we need to stay alive, and they carry away waste in the process.
We know this. But, most of us don’t realize just how easy it is to damage this special organ, and why we need to protect it at all costs. With February being American Heart Health month, it is the perfect time to take a beat and learn a bit more about our bodies.
A quick intro: heart disease and sleep apnea
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among adults in developed countries, and heart failure is a major public health problem in the United States.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, nearly 30 million American adults are kept from restful sleep by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a chronic disease that involves the repeated collapse of the upper airway during sleep (learn more about sleep apnea here). Research has found it is so significant that it is considered to be more prevalent than both asthma and adult diabetes and some public health advocates think it may be as big a public health hazard as smoking.
Left untreated, moderate and severe OSA can more than double your risk of dying from heart disease.
How much of a risk factor is sleep apnea?
The National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research estimates that sleep apnea is responsible for approximately 38,000 cardiovascular deaths per year, with an associated millions of dollars spent on related hospitalizations. According to the literature, Obstructive Sleep Apnea increases the risk of heart failure by 140%, the risk of stroke by 60%, and the risk of coronary heart disease by 30%. Heart failure affects nearly 5 million patients in this country, and nearly 500,000 patients are newly diagnosed with it each year and is increasing in prevalence.
Thus, heart disease is regarded as the leading cause of adult deaths in developed countries and sleep apnea is an important factor to focus on in the fight to treat and prevent it.
How does sleep apnea actually affect the heart?
Researchers believe that the lack of oxygen that occurs during sleep apnea when you stop breathing causes the body to release epinephrine (also called adrenaline), a stress hormone. When this happens over and over, adrenaline levels remain high, leading to hypertension (high blood pressure). Of all people with hypertension, about 30% have obstructive sleep apnea. Also, by disrupting how your body takes in oxygen, your brain struggles to control how blood flows in your arteries and the brain itself which can put undue stress on your heart and cause it to get enlarged. An enlarged heart does not pump as well and as a result, the heart and body will get even less oxygen. Sleep apnea can also worsen existing cardiovascular disease.
“Over time, OSA exposes the heart and circulation to harmful stimuli that may cause or contribute to the progression of most cardiovascular diseases,” explains Dr. Atul Malhotra, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Research Chief of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine and US San Diego Health.
What other kinds of cardiovascular problems can I get with obstructive sleep apnea?
Some studies show that patients with sleep apnea are at an increased risk for ventricular arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) and nocturnal sudden death (dying in your sleep). Additional studies show that with obstructive sleep apnea, the right side of your heart may suffer damage as it pumps harder to help the lungs overcome the blockage in your airway.
Problems with the rhythm of your heart may also occur with OSA such as atrial fibrillation (a type of irregular heart beat) and bradycardia (slow heart rate). People with severe obstructive sleep apnea are 4 times more likely to have atrial fibrillation compared to those without OSA. Not receiving treatment for your sleep apnea may make your atrial fibrillation difficult to control. For example, in people who have atrial fibrillation treated with catheter ablation (a special procedure done to the heart), those with untreated obstructive sleep apnea are 25% more likely to have their atrial fibrillation return.
Research has shown that people with OSA are also more likely to have coronary artery disease (CAD). Coronary artery disease (also known as the hardening of the arteries) occurs due to a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to your heart. This can lead to heart attacks and heart damage. Research showed that up to 70% of people admitted to hospital because of CAD were found to have obstructive sleep apnea. If you have severe OSA that is untreated, you are twice as likely to develop a heart attack in the future as those without OSA.
Preventing Heart Disease by Treating Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is dangerous, and associated health problems linked to the condition can sound scary. The good news? It is easy to treat.
The most common way to treat obstructive sleep apnea is with a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, which helps keep your airway from closing during sleep. This corrects your sleep apnea and prevents your blood oxygen levels from falling while you sleep. Using CPAP regularly at night as prescribed by your healthcare provider also helps lower the stress on your heart. If you have atrial fibrillation, CPAP use may control your irregular heartbeat. If you have both severe sleep apnea and hypertension, CPAP may help control your blood pressure.
Some people have trouble at first getting used to sleeping with a CPAP device. Other treatments for sleep apnea include; mouth appliances, nerve stimulators to keep your airways open, and several types of surgery.
If you are having difficulty with your current treatment option or you think you may have sleep apnea, speak with an Ognomy board-certified sleep specialist who can check your CPAP for problems, or prescribe a more suitable course of treatment for you. The best part? You can get tested and treated for your sleep apnea without ever leaving your home.
Get your sleep apnea checked—and prevent or control further heart-related problems which are often severe and life limiting. Your heart will beat better, you will feel better and you’ll live a longer, healthier and happier life.