According to the National Sleep Foundation, veterans are 4 times more likely than other Americans to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Though only around 5% of Americans have sleep apnea, nearly 20% of veterans suffer from the disorder.
Sleep apnea is a disorder where the airway becomes blocked or the muscles that control breathing stop moving. This means that breathing stops and resumes upon a person abruptly gasping for air. For individuals with sleep apnea, this pause in breathing can occur 5 times per night to hundreds of times every night in severe cases. Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea can include:
- Loud snoring, which is usually more prominent in obstructive sleep apnea
- Episodes of breathing cessation during sleep witnessed by another person
- Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath, which more likely indicates central sleep apnea
- Awakening with a dry mouth or a sore throat
- Morning headache
- Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
- Attention problems
Although obesity can contribute to the development of sleep apnea due to excess fat in the throat, those with a healthy weight and slender people can develop sleep apnea as well. Many medical conditions can cause sleep apnea including, but not limited to traumatic brain injury, heart conditions, PTSD, nerve conditions, rhinitis, and diabetes.
So now that we better understand what sleep apnea is, how can it increase your risk for heart disease? During hours of sleep, your blood pressure normally lowers about 10-20%. When you stop breathing during sleep, your oxygen levels drop. The brain’s response to the lack of oxygen is to release adrenaline (epinephrine) as well as constrict blood vessels in order to increase the flow of oxygen to vital organs like the heart and brain; this increases blood pressure. While blood pressure normally lowers at night, sleep apnea causes a constant surge of high blood pressure, increasing 10-20% higher than normal. This constant surge of high blood pressure begins to seep and continue into waking hours leading a person to develop hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure). Hypertension is a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases including increasing the risk of stroke and heart attack.
According to a study by the National Sleep Foundation, men with severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) were 58% more likely to develop congestive heart failure than men without sleep apnea. The information below shows the criteria for mild, moderate, and severe OSA.
- Mild OSA– The sufferer experiences 5-14 episodes of interruptions in breathing in an hour.
- Moderate OSA-The sufferer experiences 15-30 episodes of interruptions in breathing in an hour.
- Severe OSA-The sufferer experiences 30 or more interruptions in breathing in an hour
With heart disease being the leading cause of death in the United States and hypertension being a major risk factor, it is important to treat your sleep apnea in order to avoid developing hypertension which can develop into heart disease. By treating your sleep apnea with a CPAP (a machine which keeps air pressure in the breathing passages so they don’t close down causing a lack of oxygen) research shows that this treatment can improve heart function and decrease the risk of developing heart disease. If you have sleep apnea, your chances of developing hypertension increase significantly, so proper treatment and care through your health care providers is important to prevent cardiovascular complications.