Do you or a loved one suffer from sleep apnea or sleep-disordered breathing, causing symptoms like loud snoring? Snoring is more than an annoyance for your bed partner at night— it’s often the sign of something far more serious.
Snoring is one of many major signs of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is connected to numerous serious health conditions including diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease— including a relationship between sleep apnea and cardiovascular events like heart attacks.
The idea can seem scary but remember— both sleep apnea and heart disease are fortunately treatable, and the severity of your symptoms can be reduced with the right treatment.
But can sleep apnea cause a heart attack?
Yes— you’re at a much higher risk of having a heart attack when you have untreated sleep apnea. Understanding why is important. We’re exploring how sleep apnea affects your total heart health— including how sleep apnea can cause a heart attack and how best to treat sleep apnea and heart disease.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder where your breathing pauses while you sleep. This breathing cessation is caused by an obstruction in your airways, such as the relaxed muscles in your throat— which cause snoring— or excess body weight putting additional pressure on your airways. This type of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and it is the most common form of the disorder.
When your airway is obstructed, this causes oxygen levels in your blood to drop. In turn, your body responds by making your heart work harder to pump oxygenated blood through your body, stimulating your nervous system to constrict your body’s blood vessels and increase the amount of oxygen going to your heart and brain.
Having untreated sleep apnea can put you at increased risk for serious health conditions like diabetes, chronic pain, erectile dysfunction, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, atrial fibrillation, and cardiovascular disease. If you already have any of these conditions, untreated sleep apnea can make your symptoms worse. But can sleep apnea cause heart problems?
How Does Sleep Apnea Affect the Heart?
Sleep apnea can have a profound and dangerous effect on your heart. According to a study published by Minerva Pneumologica, an estimated 38,000 cardiovascular deaths occur annually in America because of sleep apnea.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, as well as worldwide.
Sleep apnea is a leading contributor because it causes your blood pressure and heart rate to elevate. It also forces your heart to work harder to pump blood to your body and your brain. This increases the risk of developing hypertension, but also increases the chances of having a heart attack or a stroke.
Estimates indicate that sleep apnea increases the risk of heart failure by 140 percent and the risk of coronary heart disease by 30 percent. Sleep apnea patients are 2 to 4 times more likely to experience an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia.
Hypertension— also known as high blood pressure— is a common and dangerous comorbidity of sleep apnea. In fact, they have a cyclical effect on each other. When suffering from both hypertension and sleep apnea, the amount of oxygen flowing through the body is reduced even more than if you’re only experiencing one disorder.
Sleep apnea also increases blood pressure because it reduces the amount of oxygen coming into the body.
Reduced oxygen levels cause your heart to work harder pumping oxygenated blood through your body, putting extra pressure on your artery walls, creating further risk for serious heart and health issues.
Can Sleep Apnea Cause a Heart Attack?
If you’re a patient with severe sleep apnea, you have a much higher risk of having a heart attack than a person without sleep apnea.
According to the American Thoracic Society, sleep apnea is a significant risk factor for a heart attack. It can increase your risk of heart attack or cardiac death by 30 percent.
Their study followed 1123 sleep apnea patients and observed them over the course of the next 4 to 5 years.
Researchers observed participants to see how many of them experienced negative cardiovascular events such as heart attacks, coronary angiography, or cardiac death following their initial sleep apnea testing and diagnosis.
Their investigation found that the more severe a person’s sleep apnea was at the beginning of the study, the greater their risk was of developing or dying of heart disease was later on.
Many factors can increase your risk of sleep apnea as well as sudden cardiac death, including family history, obesity, and sleep-disordered breathing, which is why it’s so important to get the right treatment for these health problems as soon as possible.
Can Heart Damage from Sleep Apnea be Reversed?
If you’ve already experienced one or more cardiovascular events due to sleep apnea, it’s vital to seek treatment. Thankfully, treating sleep apnea can also make significant improvements to your overall health.
Not only can the right treatment treat your sleep apnea, but it can also help reduce the severity of heart disease, diabetes, and many more health conditions.
How to Treat Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease
The most common and effective way to treat sleep apnea, as well as any underlying conditions, is with CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure treatment.
CPAP treatment— also known as CPAP therapy— treats sleep apnea by gently opening obstructed airways with a continuous stream of pressurized air. This stream of pressurized air allows you to breathe freely and sleep soundly through the night.
When you’re following your CPAP treatment as directed, not only will you sleep better, but your heart won’t have to work as hard to pump blood through your body. This takes significant strain off of your heart and the rest of your cardiovascular system.
CPAP Therapy and Your Heart Health
According to a study by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, CPAP treatment significantly reduced the risk of cardiovascular death, acute coronary syndrome, and hospitalization for heart failure in patients with coronary artery disease.
The study also indicates that CPAP therapy has a significant positive effect on lipid levels in the blood, improved insulin sensitivity and ventricular function, as well as reduced blood pressure.
The Importance of a Healthy Lifestyle
Along with CPAP therapy, the right lifestyle can make a significant impact on sleep apnea as well as heart disease. These include:
- A healthy diet high in healthy fats, fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains
- Regular moderate exercise
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol at least a few hours before bed
- A consistent bedtime and wake-up time each day
- Positive sleep habits, such as avoiding excessive blue light before bed
- Creating a sleep environment conducive to a good night’s rest. Make sure your bed or your mattress are comfortable and easy to sleep on, and that you’re not bothered by unwanted light or sound. We recommend using eye masks from Manta Sleep to block out any unwanted light and sleep soundly.
Schedule A Consultation Today
It can be difficult to know if sleep apnea is contributing to your heart health issues, or causing them. If you think sleep apnea may be putting you at risk for cardiovascular disease— including a heart attack— it’s important to get tested. Only with sleep apnea treatment will your symptoms improve.
Schedule a consultation at one of our sleep center locations and we can help you determine if a sleep test or sleep study is needed.
Before scheduling a sleep study, you can also take our sleep apnea quiz to learn more about how your health, lifestyle, and symptoms may be putting you at risk. Our quiz won’t diagnose you with sleep apnea, but it can help you understand your risk level and symptoms so you can discuss them with your doctor or a sleep expert.
Ready to schedule a consultation? Contact us at the Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee today and we’ll help you get back to the restful sleep and good health you deserve.
Jean-Louis, G, et al. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Cardiovascular Disease: Evidence and Underlying Mechanisms.” Minerva Pneumologica, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2009, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3106988/.
“Sleep Apnea Increases Risk of Heart Attack or Death by 30 Percent.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 21 May 2007, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070520183533.htm.
Jean-Louis, Girardin, et al. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Cardiovascular Disease: Role of the Metabolic Syndrome and Its Components.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine : JCSM : Official Publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 15 June 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2546461/.