Several recent studies have indicated an alarming increase in the number of people with obstructive sleep apnea. This fact has public health and safety officials very concerned.

According to the National Sleep Awareness Project, 25 million Americans have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea increases one’s risk for potentially life-threatening health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and stroke.

Central and Obstructive Sleep Apnea

There are two types of sleep apnea. Central sleep is characterized by breathing pauses that occur when the region of the brain that controls breathing fails to signal the breathing muscles to function. Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type, occurs when the airway becomes blocked or collapses during sleep, causing pauses in breathing. Air that passes through the blocked airways creates a loud snoring noise.

Study Findings

The American Journal of Epidemiology recently published data that showed a significant rise in obstructive sleep apnea over the last two decades. According to this data, an estimated 26 percent of adults between 30 and 70 have sleep apnea. The current obesity epidemic is believed to be a contributing factor.

Other studies have also shown an association between sleep apnea and impaired brain and heart health, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. These studies also showed that continuous positive airway pressure therapy (CPAP) may be very effective in reducing the risk of brain and heart damage from sleep apnea. Below are some of their findings:

  • A Brazilian study found a higher occurrence of cardiac arrhythmia in patients with severe sleep apnea than in those without sleep apnea. The study also found that more severe the sleep apnea, the higher the prevalence of rhythm disturbance.
  • A study published in the Journal of Hypertension found that CPAP treatment was effective in reducing blood pressure in patients with sleep apnea and resistant hypertension.
  • A study published in the Journal NeuroImage found anatomical and functional changes in the brain stem regions of people with sleep apnea.
  • A study in a recent issue of Anesthesiology showed that prescribing CPAP therapy to a sleep apnea patient prior to surgery greatly reduced by more than half the likelihood of post-op cardiovascular complications, such as cardiac arrest and shock.
  • A study in a recent issue of the Journal Sleep found that participants with untreated severe sleep apnea have significantly small amounts of white matter fiber integrity in multiple areas of their brains. This white matter reduction was accompanied by symptoms such as daytime alertness, cognition and mood. A year of CPAP therapy almost completely reversed this brain damage.

See Your Doctor if You Have Symptoms

Common signs of sleep apnea are breathing pauses, choking, gasping or very loud snoring during sleep. If you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms, see a doctor right away. Sleep apnea can lead to more serious- and life threatening- health conditions if left untreated.