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Updated Oct. 19, 2020

It’s easy to dismiss symptoms of sleep apnea, such as excessive snoring and daytime sleepiness, as part of aging or the result of stress. But most people don’t realize that this disorder also affects the heart.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep apnea affects more than 18 million Americans. While doctors have known about the connection between sleep apnea and heart health for some time, recent studies — including one by UPMC cardiologist Gavin Hickey, MD — make the relationship even clearer.

“Sleep apnea is a very common, but potentially dangerous, condition that affects millions of Americans,” says Ryan Soose, MD, director, UPMC Division of Sleep Surgery.

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What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes breathing to become very shallow or to even stop for a short time. During obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type of the disorder, soft tissue in the airway collapses and blocks breathing.

“Sleep apnea is characterized by a stopping or slowing of the breathing at night, which can occur hundreds of times throughout the night in many people, leading to disrupted sleep and increased stress on the cardiovascular system,” Dr. Soose says.  “Snoring is a common symptom of sleep apnea that affects not only the patient, but also that of the spouse or other family members sleeping nearby.”

Sleep apnea episodes can happen 30 or more times per hour, often leaving the sleeper gasping for breath. These episodes interrupt REM sleep — the deepest period of sleep — when your body rests and recharges.

“People with sleep apnea never get solid rest,” says Dr. Hickey.

You may be more likely to suffer from the disorder if you’re male, overweight, and/or over age 40.

Research on Sleep Apnea and Heart Health

In June 2017, Dr. Hickey published a study on sleep apnea and heart health based on research he conducted at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. His conclusion: People with heart disease are much more likely to be readmitted to the hospital within 90 days if they also have sleep apnea.

The study followed 271 veterans with heart disease over a period of one year. Those who also had obstructive sleep apnea had a 30 percent higher rate of hospital readmission within 30 days. They were 57 percent more likely to be readmitted within 90 days.

His findings are in line with other research on the topic. “Studies have shown that 50 percent of people with heart failure have obstructive sleep apnea,” says Dr. Hickey.

How Sleep Apnea Affects the Heart

“The average person doesn’t relate snoring to heart failure,” says Dr. Hickey. “Most people don’t know how sleep apnea affects the heart.”

By blocking a person’s airway, sleep apnea limits oxygen flow to vital organs, including the heart and brain. In addition to heart failure, sleep apnea may contribute to high blood pressure, stroke, and atrial fibrillation.

“Doctors initially thought that sleep apnea didn’t add to other risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes, smoking, and high blood pressure,” says Dr. Hickey. “But even when controlling for those factors, our study clearly showed a link between sleep apnea and heart health.”

How to Treat Your Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is underdiagnosed, says Dr. Hickey. That’s partly due to the fact that people don’t understand the connection between sleep apnea and heart health, but also because people are reluctant to participate in sleep studies. New devices now allow many people to complete the initial screening process at home.

If you’re diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, treatment options include:

  • Lifestyle changes, including weight loss and better sleep habits
  • Use of a CPAP machine, a device that blows air into your nose, mouth, or both while you are sleeping
  • Nasal sprays
  • Oral appliance therapy

“There are a number of treatments, both medical and surgical, that are available,” Dr. Soose says. “We employ all those techniques at the Division of Sleep Surgery.”

To learn more about sleep apnea treatment, visit the Division of Sleep Surgery at UPMC or call University Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialists at 412-232-3687.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.