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Will Sleep Apnea Affect Your Life Expectancy?

can you improve life expectancy with treatment for sleep apnea

Multiple studies suggest chronic snoring can actually negatively affect life expectancy. But how exactly is it manifested? More importantly, can you improve life expectancy with treatment for sleep apnea?


What is sleep apnea?

First, it is important to understand the distinction between sleep apnea and primary snoring.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder which repeatedly interrupts a person’s breathing (stop and start) throughout the duration of sleep. It is a potentially serious disorder characterized by loud snoring and daytime tiredness. It is distinctive from regular or primary snoring. The latter can be caused by nose or throat conditions (allergies, colds, cough, nasal congestion, throat swelling, etc.), sleeping position (back sleeping), use of alcohol, or other depressants.

While both primary snoring and sleep apnea-related snoring happens when the throat tissues vibrate, sleep apnea is usually represented by:

  • Louder snores
  • Pauses between breaths (for about 10 seconds)
  • Snorer tends to take shallow breaths, choke, or gasp for air
  • Snorer becomes restless


What happens to the body during apnea?

People suffering from OSA temporarily stop breathing multiple times a night. This happens when the pharynx (soft tissue of the palate and back of the throat) collapses, causing a partial or complete blockage in the airway. This affects the distribution of oxygen to the body and vital organs and leads to abnormal heart rhythms. The body, however, will try to correct this. 

Sensing a drop in oxygen supply, the brain sends an emergency signal to the body to briefly awaken the sleeper and make him/her gasp for air. Both the chest and diaphragm will work harder than normal to open the airway. The sleeper will breathe with loud gasps, jerk, or jolt the body. This abrupt movement disrupts the body’s sleeping pattern, which impacts the quality of sleep.

Will Sleep Apnea Affect Your Life Expectancy

But that’s not the only way sleep apnea affects life expectancy.

The brain uses stress hormones to send signals to the rest of the body. This signal amps up the stress hormones, the same hormones that send your body into overdrive during fight or flight scenarios. As a result, the heart will also beat faster and boost blood pressure. This also stokes inflammation, a key player in heart problems. This damages blood vessels and increases the risk of blood clots, the culprit for heart attacks and strokes. 


Health risk linked with sleep apnea

When left untreated, sleep apnea is potentially dangerous. It can lead to a long list of serious health problems such as high blood pressure, which is associated with abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and heart failure. 

An 18-year follow-up study conducted by Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study showed that people with severe sleep apnea have a higher risk of mortality than people without OSA. Subsequently, data show the risk of death increases when OSA is left untreated. 

Aside from the apparent health risks, people with untreated sleep apnea suffer from reduced organizational skills, concentration, and focus. Subsequently, sleep apnea is linked to higher incidences of accidents involving the use of motor vehicles due to decreased road awareness and attention. 

Many people who suffer from sleep apnea also complain about morning headaches, fatigue, feeling drowsy throughout the day, and dry mouth, regardless of how long they slept the night before. 


The link between snoring and life expectancy

The snoring, wheezing and gasping for air you make while asleep may cause more harm to your body than simply robbing you of a good night’s sleep. When you have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), your sleep will be constantly interrupted by apneas (pauses in breathing). The exact cause of this differs from one patient to another, but there is definitely a significant link between sleep apnea and excessive body fat. Medical experts believe this link exists because when most patients with this sleep disorder lose weight, their snoring symptoms drastically improve. 


Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome

On the other hand, some obese patients can also develop a rare form of sleep apnea called obesity hypoventilation syndrome (OHS). People with this condition do not only suffer from interrupted breathing during sleep, but they also have poor breathing patterns while awake, which lower their oxygen level, and increase their carbon dioxide level. 

Hypoventilation means the body is unable to move enough air in and out of the lungs. Its three main features are obesity, daytime hypoventilation, and OSA. Though the exact cause of OHS is still not fully understood, many experts believe excess fat-producing hormones, and the brain’s inability to correct and manage breathing causes breathing problems. Again, excessive weight is definitely a contributing factor, since excess weight puts more pressure on the chest, making it more difficult to breathe normally.

Symptoms of OHS are largely similar to OSA, which includes loud frequent snoring and breathing pauses during sleep, lack of energy, sleepiness, headaches, and even depression during the daytime. But unlike OSA, OHS comes with breathlessness.

Life expectancy with treated sleep apnea

Life expectancy with treated sleep apnea

While the effects of sleep apnea can be truly discouraging, the good news is it is not a death sentence, far from it, actually. Obstructive sleep apnea is treatable, and there are tons of different ways to manage and treat it. 

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) is probably the most popular and reliable option. The CPAP machine works by pushing a steady stream of air through the mask the sleeper will wear during sleep. The air pressure is higher than outside air, high enough to keep the airways open. This provides better sleep quality and significantly less (or none at all) snoring. 

Another option is the bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP). It works like CPAP, but instead of providing constant and steady air pressure, it makes less air when you breathe out. 

A recent study shows CPAP, a common treatment for sleep apnea, brings longer life for those who suffer from chronic sleep apnea. The study shows the benefits of CPAP were tied to a whopping 62% decline in the odds of death over 11 years of follow-up. What is even more encouraging is that these benefits are held even after factoring in risk factors such as diabetes, weight loss, heart disease, and high blood pressure. 

Another good option for reducing snoring is an oral appliance, which helps push the jaw forward to open the airways; upper airway stimulation, a device that when inserted inside the body (underneath the skin, above the rib cage), stimulates the tongue while you sleep to clear the airways; and of course, surgery, which involves the removal of soft tissue from the back of the palate to open up the airways.

And since excess weight is a common contributory factor in the occurrence of OSA, you cannot go wrong with switching to a healthier lifestyle to lose weight. This means regular exercise, a balanced diet, avoiding alcohol, and having good sleeping habits.


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Dr. Manish Shah tmj and sleep specialist

Dr. Manish Shah