A recent study by the Mayo Clinic shows that people with sleep apnea have a slightly higher risk for sudden cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac arrest, or SCA, is an often fatal condition that causes the heart to stop, and is responsible for nearly a half a million deaths per year.

The research showed that people with sleep apnea had a 2.6 times higher risk for SCA than those that do not have apnea.

“The prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea in Western populations is high and will likely only continue to grow given the obesity epidemic and direct relationship between obesity and sleep apnea,” said lead author Dr. Apoor Gami, M.D., MSc, FACC, a cardiologist at Midwest Heart Specialists – Advocate Medical Group in Elmhust, Ill.

In the study, researchers followed 10,000 Minnesota residents with suspected sleep disorders and found that 78 percent had moderate sleep apnea. During the 15 years the patients were followed, 142 had a fatal SCA or had to be resuscitated with CPR. The researchers also found that those with the most severe sleep apnea, where oxygen levels drop below 78 percent, had an increased risk of sudden cardiac death by as much as 80 percent.

A person with sleep apnea can stop breathing up to 40 times or more per night, depriving the body of oxygen. In response, the organs demand more blood, which strains the heart. Diagnosing sleep apnea and treating the problem with a CPAP machine or oral appliance are the first steps to reducing the risk of SCA.

Treating sleep apnea in one person can improve the quality of life of both bed partners and may have the added benefit of helping to prevent cardiovascular disease,” said senior author Dr. Virend K. Somers, M.D., a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minn. “If the spouse sees the bed partner stop breathing repeatedly during sleep, this is an important clue that he or she probably has sleep apnea.”

Ramie A. Tritt, MD, President, Atlanta ENT