Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder that affects approximately 25 million people in the U.S. This number does not include the estimated 80% of people with moderate to severe sleep apnea who remain undiagnosed. Sleep apnea complications can lead to severe health problems, including diabetes and early risk of death.
What is sleep apnea?
There are two main types of sleep apnea.
- Obstructive sleep apnea: Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea. When sleeping, the muscles of the throat become so relaxed that they actually block or obstruct the airway.
- Central sleep apnea: This form of sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send proper signals to the muscles responsible for breathing.
Regardless of the kind of sleep apnea, both follow the same pattern. The sleeper stops breathing; the brain notices the lack of oxygen and sends a “wake up” call that makes the sleeper gasp themselves awake. This can happen between five and ten times an hour for up to 30 seconds at a time.
What are symptoms of sleep apnea?
Symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Daytime fatigue
- Lack of mental clarity
- Difficulty concentrating
- Dry mouth in the morning
In many cases, the last symptom – snoring – is the first sign of a problem (usually noticed by the spouse!).
Are there sleep apnea complications?
While it may seem that with sleep apnea all you have to lose is a good night’s sleep, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sleep apnea has serious potential health risks that should not be ignored.
Seven of the most common sleep apnea complications and side effects include:
- High blood pressure
- Chronic heart disease
- Atrial fibrillation
- Type 2 diabetes
- Risk of early mortality
1. High blood pressure
Sleep apnea may not only make high blood pressure worse, but it also might cause it.
The urgent signal to breathe, delivered frequently over the course of a night, can cause stress hormones to spike several times a night. This, combined with a lack of oxygen, can cause high blood pressure.
2. Chronic heart disease
Again related to stress hormones and the gasping breath that signals the jumpstart of breath, chronic heart disease can be caused by sleep apnea.
3. Atrial fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation occurs when the top two chambers of the heart beat out of sync with the bottom two chambers. This can be exacerbated by sleep apnea.
Stroke is one of the side effects of sleep apnea that you literally can’t see coming.
Low oxygen levels combined with high blood pressure form a perfect storm in the brain. The incidence of sleep apnea also tends to rise after stroke.
5. Type 2 diabetes
An estimated 80% of people with type 2 diabetes have sleep apnea.
Because sleep apnea is also a factor in obesity, and obesity is a factor in type 2 diabetes, these three disease are inextricably linked.
The effects of sleep apnea on the brain cannot be underestimated. People who are suffering from extreme fatigue are also much more likely to be suffering from depression.
7. Increased risk of early mortality
Simply put, chronic fatigue from sleep apnea leads to more accidents, and more accidents lead to an increased chance of death.
Drowsy driving has been shown to be just as dangerous as drunk driving, but accidents aren’t confined to the road. Workers with sleep apnea are twice as likely to be injured on the job, sometimes seriously.