For the estimated 25 million people in the U.S. who suffer from sleep apnea, it’s more than just a lifetime of poor sleep. If you have ever wondered if you can die from sleep apnea, the answer is simple: yes.
What are the dangers of untreated sleep apnea?
There are three different types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type. A sleeper’s throat and tongue relax so much during sleep that the airway is blocked. Central sleep apnea is a rare form of sleep apnea that occurs when the sleeper’s central nervous system essentially “forgets” to tell the sleeper to breathe. Rarer still is complex sleep apnea – a combination of both of the first two types.
Untreated sleep apnea means more than just sleepy days and poor focus. In addition to the daily litany of uncomfortable and debilitating health effects (e.g., migraines, sweating, weight gain, and loss of sex drive), sleep apnea raises your risk of the following conditions:
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Depression (or worsening depression if already present)
- Glaucoma complications
But that’s not all. While sleep apnea itself – the pause in breath and choking intake of air – is not likely to kill you, it does come with something that will.
Can you actually die from sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea and heart failure are well-documented as a lethal combination. In 2016, Carrie Fisher (the actress who played the iconic Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies) suffered from cardiac arrest on an airplane. She was reportedly experiencing apneas (pauses in breath for longer than ten seconds) during the flight from London to Los Angeles in December 2016. When the plane landed, Fisher was unresponsive and eventually died. The coroner noted the cause of death as sleep apnea and cardiac arrest.
Other celebrities whose cause of death was sudden heart failure linked to sleep apnea include:
- James Gandolfini (The Sopranos)
- Actor John Candy
- Justin Tennison (The Deadliest Catch)
- Entertainer Harris Glenn Milstead (also known as Divine)
- Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia
- Singer-musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
- President William Howard Taft
- NFL player Reggie White
If the death of these famous people from sleep apnea and heart failure doesn’t give you pause, consider these statistics.
- In people with severe sleep apnea, 42% of deaths were due to heart failure (compare this to 25% among people without sleep apnea)
- A 2014 study from Yale found that for every four or five years a person had sleep apnea, their risk of heart attack increased by 30%
- People with sleep apnea are two to three times more likely to have a stroke (and 40 to 60% of stroke victims have sleep apnea)
- Overall, the premature death rate for people with severe sleep apnea is triple of those without it
Why is sleep apnea so dangerous?
The link between sleep apnea and sudden cardiac arrest comes down to abnormal heart rhythm. Disordered breathing triggers a flight or fight response. Reena Mehra, a sleep expert and researcher in studies that verify this connection, notes that:
“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.” Over time, this constant, nightly stress can prove too much for the heart, causing sudden heart failure and death.
Dr. Mehra also notes that:
“…. our group has shown that people with severe obstructive sleep apnea have a