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Published on May 25, 2017

man with sleep apnea mask

Sleep apnea and your heart

Are you among the estimated 18 million Americans who suffer with sleep apnea?

It’s a condition in which there are brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. Snoring is a common symptom, although not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. For the sake of your heart (and perhaps harmony with your partner), you should talk with your primary care provider if you suspect you might have sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a serious condition that can contribute to heat disease—including an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and heart attack—stroke, accidents (due to tiredness) and even premature death.

Sleep apnea occurs when the tongue and throat muscles relax during sleep. When the airway becomes blocked or narrowed breathing can stop for several seconds. The drop in oxygen triggers the brain to start waking to resume breathing, often with a loud snort or gasp. These frequent interruptions in deep restorative sleep can cause tiredness the next day and can affect overall health.

The primary cause of sleep apnea is obesity, but there are other contributing factors including:

  • Family history
  • Gender (more common in men)
  • Age
  • Anatomy—narrow throat, thick neck, small jaw or deviated septum
  • Allergies or enlarged tonsils and adenoids 
  • Overuse of alcohol, sedatives and tranquilizers 
  • Smoking

Treatment for sleep apnea is often a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine which uses mild air pressure, delivered through a mask, to keep the airways open. Lifestyle changes can help—lose weight, quit smoking, sleep on your side and avoid alcohol. An oral appliance that repositions the jaw or surgery to remove tonsils and adenoids may help, too. Medications are generally not effective for treating sleep apnea.

A sleep study can help diagnose the problem. To learn more talk with your primary care provider or visit our Sleep Medicine section. 

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