Can You Die From Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea compromises overall health and is linked to a number of life-threatening conditions that can result in death.

By Sheryl Grassie

If you have ever had an apneic episode during sleep, one that you are conscious of, it can feel like you are going to die. But you don’t, because the minute you stop breathing, your body will wake you, and start you breathing again. Luckily, we have a built-in mechanism that protects us and keeps us alive.

When you stop breathing for short periods while you sleep, it affects your body in other ways. It acts like the first domino in a chain. You stop breathing, that lowers the amount of oxygen going into your blood. Lower blood oxygen can cause a fight or flight response, which causes an accelerated heart rate and a narrowing in the arteries. Next comes inflammation and higher blood pressure. High blood pressure can lead to both heart attack and stroke, which can both be fatal.

So, can you die from sleep apnea? It can definitely lead you there. And, this is only one scenario. Sleep apnea can generate andr exacerbate other conditions that are potentially life threatening, like COPD, diabetes, asthma, and cancer. The most common cause of death associated with sleep apnea is abnormal heart rhythms that lead to the hearts’ inability to pump blood.

What Is Sleep Apnea and Is It Common?

Sleep apnea, or sleep disordered breathing, is a condition where the body, for various reasons, stops breathing for short periods during sleep. The criteria for diagnosis is a lapse in breathing of 10 seconds or longer at least 5 times an hour. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine estimates about 25 million Americans have sleep apnea, around 1 in 12 people, but because something like 75% of potential cases are undiagnosed, the American Heart Association thinks it could be that more like 1 in 5 people actually have some level of sleep apnea.

Snoring, which is a primary symptom of sleep apnea, reportedly affects about 48 % of Americans, and that alone lends credence to the assumption that the real statistics on sleep apnea are probably higher.

Whatever the concrete numbers are, sleep apnea breaks down into three types. The first two are differentiated by what causes the lapse in breath, the third is a combination of factors and usually situationally based.

  1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea happens when the breathing passage or airway becomes narrowed and blocks the ability to breathe. The most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea is excess weight. The tissues in the throat and neck relax during sleep, and when there is excess, it can block breathing.
  2. Central Sleep Apnea is a condition caused by a faulty connection between the brain and the muscles, which in essence, don’t get a correct or consistent message to breathe and will periodically or regularly stop, causing apneic episodes.
  3. Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome is a combination of the two above mentioned types of sleep apnea and is rare. It happens in the initial stages of treating obstructive sleep apnea with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. The body can initiate a secondary central sleep apnea reaction in addition to the obstructive sleep apnea resulting in the complex sleep apnea syndrome diagnosis.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Sleep Apnea has a number of co-occurring symptoms which can lead to other health issues and various health risks and challenges. Insomnia for example, can be a co-occurring symptom/disorder caused by sleep apnea that can lead to further health issues like heart disease and obesity. The most common symptom of sleep apnea, and something that often leads to a diagnosis, is pronounced snoring. Below is a more comprehensive list of associated symptoms.

  • Snoring, snorting, or gasping
  • Gaps in breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Sore throat or cough
  • Chest pain while sleeping
  • Waking up frequently
  • Insomnia
  • Need to sleep in an elevated position
  • Headache upon waking
  • Daytime fatigue and sleepiness
  • Drowsy Driving
  • Depression
  • Mood disorders
  • Memory challenges
  • Weight gain

Comorbid Conditions

A comorbid condition can be the direct result of a primary condition, in this case sleep apnea, or it may be that the comorbid condition plays a role in creating the primary condition. We have a bit of a which came first question here, but in either case, it is almost always the comorbid condition that causes the more serious threat to life. Just how serious? Let’s take a look.

Type II Diabetes

Both sleep apnea and type II diabetes are associated with weight gain and obesity, and it may be that extra weight causes and aggravates both of these conditions. Type II diabetes is linked to sleep apnea and about 80% of people who have type II diabetes, also have sleep apnea. They damage that diabetes does to your body can be fatal, and it is strongly correlated with heart attack and stroke.

Obesity

Extra weight is a primary factor in developing sleep apnea and obesity is common among people who have sleep apnea. Since sleep apnea causes an interruption to sleep, which further disrupts hormones that can cause weight gain, we see a vicious circle of weight gain which causes sleep apnea, which causes a lack of sleep, which leads to weight gain—round and round it goes. Sleep apnea is further associated with metabolic syndrome, making hard to lose weight. Obesity puts an enormous strain on the heart and is associated with fatal episodes.

Cardiovascular Disease

38,000 people die from heart disease yearly where sleep apnea is a complicating factor. 60% of people with heart failure have sleep apnea. Having sleep apnea increases the risk of a heart attack by 30%. Having sleep apnea increases the risk of stroke by between 30 and 50%. These are very real statistics on the likelihood of acquiring cardiovascular disease comorbid with sleep apnea.

Cancer

Sleep apnea doesn’t cause cancer that we know of, but if you have cancer and sleep apnea together, it increases the risk of death from cancer. The sleep apnea, which decreases health in many ways, seems to be a tipping factor in whether you are more likely to recover from cancer or to have it be fatal.

There is no doubt that the conditions associated with sleep apnea raise your risk for serious problems and can be a direct cause of death.

Sleep Apnea Treatment

If you snore, find yourself startled awake on a regular basis, or have any of the previously mentioned symptoms, it might be time to talk to your doctor, and even consider a sleep study in order to get a definitive diagnosis. For treatment your doctor may recommend any or all of the following:

  • Lose weight
  • Quit smoking
  • No alcohol
  • Discontinue sleep medications
  • Discontinue sedatives and tranquilizers
  • Get more exercise
  • Use a humidifier
  • Try a decongestant
  • Change your sleep position
  • Use a CPAP machine

Summary

Sleep Apnea is not likely to kill you directly, but if untreated, it can contribute to or precipitate other disorders which can be fatal. Commonly associated disorders are heart disease and stroke, but sleep apnea is also associated with cancer, asthma, high blood pressure, and obesity. There are a number of common symptoms, like snoring, associated with sleep apnea. See your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment that can include weight loss, exercise, medication changes, or a CPAP machine.


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