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A new study led by the University of California Los Angeles School of Nursing shows that sleep apnea lowers the body’s autonomic responses, but even more so in women. The autonomic responses control blood pressure, heart rate, sweating and other basic bodily functions, making sleep apnea a potentially deadly health problem.

Sleep apnea is a condition that causes breathing to be interrupted during sleep, sometimes as many as a hundred times or more in a single night. When the interruption of breathing happens, blood oxygen drops, which can eventually damage a variety of cells in the body. Women’s sleep apnea symptoms may be subtler than men’s, and as a result obstructive sleep apnea is often misdiagnosed in women.

“We now know that sleep apnea is a precursor to bigger health issues. And for women in particular, the results could be deadly,” said Dr. Macey, who led the research. “This may mean that women are more likely to develop symptoms of heart disease, as well as other consequences of poor adaptation to daily physical tasks. Early detection and treatment may be needed to protect against damage to the brain and other organs.”