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Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Peter

Can Sleep Apnea Kill You?

Sleep disorders are very common, but usually they are not fatal or affect life expectancy. One that could theoretically be very dangerous and even fatal is sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea affects nearly 2 million adults in the UK, which ranks it among the top 3 most common sleep disorders, along with insomnia and restless legs syndrome. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association there are three types – obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea and complex sleep apnea syndrome. 

Causes of obstructive sleep apnea are obesity, alcohol consumption, smoking, age, etc. Central sleep apnea is more of a neurological problem when the brain fails to send signals to the muscles responsible for breathing.

Some of the main symptoms of sleep apnea are snoring, gasping for air and pauses in breathing during sleep. There are various ways to treat this disorder, such as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP machine), surgery, or treatment for underlying medical conditions.

But since sleep apnea is directly related to breathing, many question whether untreated sleep apnea can really kill them.

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    Can sleep apnea really kill you?

    We can’t say that this is a myth, but the chances that sleep apnea will directly kill you are less than 0.01%. In order for sleep apnea to kill you, you need to stop breathing completely for a long period of time, because a person can live without oxygen for a few minutes. But when you start to suffocate, you will wake up and start breathing.

    An image of a man sleeping and snoring.

    If you have other illnesses, severe sleep apnea combined with these illnesses can cause sudden cardiac death. Also, in theory, if a person suffers from central sleep apnea and the brain completely “forgets” to control breathing, the person could potentially die. But it is so unlikely that the immediate death from sleep apnea should not worry you, because the body is simply programmed to breathe permanently while we are alive.

    What can sleep apnea cause?

    Just because sleep apnea won’t kill you directly doesn’t mean it’s not a very dangerous disorder. There are many risks, both short-term and chronic, if you leave this sleep disorder untreated. Each of these diseases that sleep apnea may cause are potentially fatal. It is therefore essential to see seek professional medical advice as soon as pauses in breathing become frequent. This way you will be able to address both the problem of sleep apnea and underlying problems.

    High blood pressure problems

    Almost 25% of the UK population has high blood pressure. It is staggering data and something that is a huge burden on the health care system. A major problem is that not only people over the age of 60 suffer from high blood pressure, but also young people in their 20s and 30s. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are certainly the main culprits.

    An image of an old lady checking her blood pressure.

    Sleep apnea can make the situation worse, and according to some research, it may even be the only cause of high blood pressure, although many cardiologists disagree. What we know for sure is that a lack of oxygen in the blood will expose your heart to increased effort. Also, frequent sleep interruptions due to lack of air trigger the secretion of stress hormones that speed up the heart and raise blood pressure.

    Heart-related diseases

    High blood pressure is not the only heart-related disease associated with obstructive sleep apnea. People who suffer from sleep apnea are 2 to 3 times more likely to experience strokes or heart attacks.

    An image of an older man suffering from a stroke.

    Other symptoms that may occur due to lack of oxygen during sleep are tachycardia, arthritis and atrial fibrillation. Tachycardia is condition when heart rate is over 100 beats per minute, at rest. Arrhythmia is an irregular heartbeat which person feels in most cases. All three conditions can be considered urgent especially when older individuals are affected.

    Diabetes type 2

    Type 2 diabetes (T2D) often referred to as adult-onset diabetes because it occurs later in life as opposed to juvenile T1 diabetes. However, many find term adult-onset diabetes outdated diabetes because more and more young people are suffering from T2D. The correlation between sleep apnea and diabetes is very interesting.

    A well-known fact is that diabetes is one of the main causes of obstructive sleep apnea. Diabetes is often associated with obesity, and therefore with sleep apnea, so 85% of patients have both diabetes and sleep apnea. But many scientists believe that sleep apnea can cause diabetes, not just the other way around. When it comes to insulin resistance and glucose metabolism problems, diabetes occurs. Lack of night’s sleep can be a culprit for insulin resistance and therefore sleep apnea is thought to be a cause of diabetes, although probably only in people who have a genetic burden.

    Weight gain & obesity

    You probably notice how obesity, sleep apnea, diabetes, and heart disease are part of the same vicious circle. And that is certainly true. Whatever the cause and whatever the consequence, it doesn’t matter so much. It is important to take care of your health so that all these problems are avoided.

    There is also a chemical explanation for how sleep apnea can lead to weight gain and later obesity. When you wake up suddenly in the middle of the night because you have a lack of air, the secretion of stress hormones begins and in parallel with the stress hormone, the hunger hormone – ghrelin is secreted. Because of ghrelin you will eat more than you need and eat during the night, so this excess of macronutrients will contribute to weight gain. In the long run, it is detrimental to your health.

    Asthma

    Asthma is a disease that affects the entire respiratory system, especially the lungs, and thus affects breathing. Asthma mainly affects children, but there is also adult asthma. It has not been scientifically proven that obstructive sleep apnea causes adult asthma, but there are indications that this is the case. Also, if you already have asthma, then obstructive sleep apnea will make your symptoms worse.

    An image of a young woman suffering from asthma.

    Metabolic problems

    We have already mentioned one metabolic disorder and that is diabetes. However, this is certainly not the only metabolic disorder. Other metabolic disorders are high levels of LDL cholesterol, low levels of HDL cholesterol, fat around waist, high levels of triglycerides and so on. Metabolic syndrome is when you have three or more metabolic disorders.

    An image of a woman suffering from metabolic pain.

    Acid reflux

    Doctors and scientists have not yet been able to establish a direct link between obstructive sleep apnea and acid refulx that is one to blame for heartburn. But a large number of people suffering from both obstructive sleep apnea and acid refulx cannot be ignored which means that there is probably a link between the two disorders. Also, treating heartburn has been shown to be beneficial for sleep apnea as the symptoms are alleviated.

    An image of a young woman suffering from acid reflux.

    Increased daytime sleeping & napping

    In almost 100% of cases, patients with sleep apnea experience excessive daytime sleepiness. The explanation is very simple. The quality of night’s sleep is significantly impaired. Lack of air can wake you up at any time, so the chances of waking up happening during REM sleep are around 40%. Waking up during REM sleep is especially bad for our brain and body.

    An image of a man napping on a sofa.

    Over time this will lead to sleep debt and then you will constantly feel tired. Sleep apnea is certainly one of the main reasons why you may feel tired even though you think you have slept for 8 hours. If you do not take care of sleep apnea, episodes of microsleep and a disorder called sleep drunkenness may occur.

    Memory loss

    Sleep is a very important part of the learning process. We don’t just mean learning like learning for an exam, but in general. During the night the brain processes the information you have learned during the day and stores it. Lack of sleep means that the brain will not have enough time nor energy to store all the information and you will forget a lot.

    An image of a young man feeling confused upon awakening.

    Scientists were shocked to learn that sleep deprivation, which is caused by obstructive sleep apnea, can even lead to cognitive impairment. The level of cognitive impairment is not severe as dementia, it is rather mild but any cognitive impairment is a huge problem. After treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, most patients noticed that they no longer had memory problems.

    Depression & anxiety

    We all know that wonderful feeling when we wake up completely rested, ready for everything that awaits us during the day. But we also know the feeling when we haven’t slept enough and that the rest of the day will be nothing short of suffering. When this happens occasionally, it is not a major problem and with the help of a coffee nap we will get through the day.

    an image of a depressed woman that cant sleep

    But when we feel very tired and sleepy almost every day because our night’s sleep is interrupted and our body and brain do not have enough oxygen, then this is cause for alarm. If you ignore these symptoms, you will become depressed and anxious over time because every day will be very difficult for you.

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