Studies conducted by experts in cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University have shown that people with sleep apnea are five times more likely to develop atrial fibrillation and have a 60% increased risk of sleep apnea related strokes. This connection between sleep apnea and stroke risk makes untreated OSA even more serious.
What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition where someone stops breathing multiple times while sleeping because their airways have become blocked or obstructed, usually by the back of the tongue. This can occur as many as 80 to 120 times per hour, and often a person can stop breathing for a dangerously long period of time. Each time your breathing stops, your heart rate and blood pressure increase and dangerously low levels of oxygen are created in the body.
Health Complications of Untreated OSA
Untreated OSA creates short-term and long-term health issues that can degrade a person’s quality of life. In some cases, untreated obstructive sleep apnea may potentially incapacitate affected individuals. When OSA is left untreated, the short-term symptoms a person experiences can lead to chronic long-term issues.
People who have untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) may begin to experience health issues like high blood pressure, heart problems, and diabetes at an earlier age. Additionally, if sleep apnea goes ignored, they may also experience cognitive problems like poor concentration and memory loss or early-onset dementia at younger ages than is typical.
A multitude of symptoms are associated with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Short-term effects experienced by people with untreated OSA include excessive daytime sleepiness, interrupted sleep, reduced deep sleep, poor sleep quality, fatigue, and lack of concentration.
When left untreated, OSA begins to impact overall health in ways that become long-term issues. Untreated sleep apnea can be a precursor to several chronic and/or debilitating health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, irregular heart rhythm, heart failure, and stroke, type 2 diabetes
The Connection Between Stroke Risk and Sleep Apnea
Researchers who have conducted sleep studies have discovered a connection between sleep apnea and stroke risk. If you experience more sleep problems, your risk for sleep apnea–related strokes increases. Factors that contribute to poor-quality sleep like restless sleep, snoring, snorting, nighttime awakenings, napping for a long time during the day, and sleeping too little or even too much all contribute to poor-quality sleep and can increase your risk of suffering a stroke.
Previous research has linked unhealthy, poor-quality sleep to blood vessel impairments and high blood pressure, which are risk factors for stroke. According to PhD researcher Dr. Christine McCarthy, a stroke and geriatric medicine physician with the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at the University of Galway in Ireland, an individual’s risk of stroke increases with the number of sleep issues they experience. For someone who has sleep apnea, experiencing more than five sleep apnea symptoms can lead to five times the risk of stroke in comparison to people who do not have sleep problems.
How Can I Reduce My Risk of Stroke?
Reducing the negative impact of sleep apnea and other sleep disorders will also reduce your risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Some of the main ways you can reduce the negative impact of sleep apnea are practicing good sleep hygiene, getting regular physical activity, and eating a healthy way.
Improving poor sleep hygiene can be challenging at times, but the benefits of decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and sleep apnea–related stroke are worth it. Poor sleep hygiene can be improved by getting a consistent amount of uninterrupted sleep each night. Your goal should be about seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, which means you may need to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day of the week. Studies have shown that getting about seven hours of uninterrupted sleep per night is associated with the least amount of cardiovascular disease.
Sleep Apnea Symptoms
Sleep apnea has several signs and symptoms, but it’s easy to mistake many of the signs and symptoms as something else since they can be confusing. For example, many people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) snore, but not everyone who snores has OSA.
Everyone with sleep apnea doesn’t experience every symptom or the same symptoms. Usually, sleep apnea symptoms are noticed by someone who sleeps in the same house as a person who suffers from sleep apnea. Depending on the severity of their sleep-disordered breathing, most patients present with at least a few of the following symptoms:
- difficulty concentrating
- excessive daytime sleepiness
- fatigue after a full night’s sleep
- frequent nighttime awakenings
- frequent nighttime urination
- increased anxiety
- memory difficulties
- mood swings
- morning dry mouth
- morning headaches
- night sweats
- restlessness during sleep
- sexual dysfunction
- waking up gasping for air or choking
- waking up with a sore throat
Treating OSA to Improve Health and Reduce Risk
Treating OSA will reduce risk of stroke and other health conditions. Your treatment plan may include lifestyle changes such as increased and/or frequent physical activity, weight loss when indicated, and avoiding alcohol and sedative medications before bedtime. Nonsurgical treatment options that might be a part of your treatment plan include the use of oral appliances, nasal resistors, oropharyngeal exercises, positional therapy, and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines.
To manage obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and its symptoms effectively and improve your health, it’s extremely important that you are compliant with your sleep apnea treatment plan. Unfortunately, many people who try CPAP therapy may find compliance with their treatment challenging when they discover they struggle with using the machine or cannot tolerate the mask or the noise.
For patients diagnosed with mild or moderate sleep apnea, FDA-registered oral appliances can be used to treat their sleep apnea. A qualified dentist trained in dental sleep medicine will choose the right oral appliance for you based on factors such as degree of snoring and mouth size. Oral appliances are an effective treatment option that can reduce your risk of sleep apnea related strokes, and many people find oral appliances to be comfortable and relatively nonintrusive.