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Untreated Sleep Apnea and Life Expectancy

untreated sleep apnea danger

While a lifestyle of heart-healthy diet and regular exercise can help promote good health and longevity, these two may not be enough for your heart. It turns out, getting a good quality sleep every night plays just as important a role in your heart health as diet and exercise. 

In 2017, the world was shocked when the news broke about the death of the iconic Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher. Reports said she died of a heart attack complicated by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). She was 60 years old. 

Now people are left to wonder: is snoring really that dangerous? Can you actually die from untreated sleep apnea? The short answer is yes. And here’s why. 

How dangerous is untreated sleep apnea?

Undiagnosed sleep apnea is directly related to increased risk of cardiovascular and metabolic health problems like diabetes. It is very common but the tricky thing is, most people don’t know they have this problem.

The American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) estimates that 38,000 people die in the United States each year due to heart disease complicated by sleep apnea. Subsequently, the American Heart Association says 1 in 5 adults have some degree of sleep apnea, and it’s more common in men than women. Also, Jonathan Jun, from John Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center said, sleep apnea affects 3% of people of normal weight, and 20% of obese individuals. 

Some experts will argue that you do not actually die from suffocation caused by sleep apnea as the body will force you to wake up by jolting when it senses it is not getting enough oxygen. That is not exactly the point. Rather, death is caused by inevitable complications. So how does sleep apnea endanger your health? 

Since sleep apnea disrupts the body’s circadian rhythms, it causes imbalances in the brain and body chemistry and interrupts cardiac and respiratory functions. Consequently, it also affects the heart by speeding up heart rate and elevates blood pressure.

Here is a list of life-threatening conditions that can lead to or get worsen from obstructive sleep apnea:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diabetes mellitus 
  • High blood pressure
  • Sudden cardiac death
  • Stroke

untreated sleep apnea life expectancy

Warning signs of sleep apnea

It is important to note that while snoring is the most common sign of sleep apnea, not everyone with the condition snores. Also, not everyone who snores have obstructive sleep apnea. Sinus infection, enlarged tonsils, nasal congestion, and other factors can cause snoring. 

While snoring from time to time is normal for most people, OSA is a little different. As said earlier, most people with sleep apnea don’t know they have it. So what are the warning signs? Here are a few things to be on the lookout for:

  • Waking up tired and groggy, even after long hours of sleep
  • Waking up with sore throat
  • Waking up with headaches
  • Choking or gasping sounds
  • Loud and persistent snoring
  • Silent pauses in between breathing
  • Restless sleep
  • Irritability 
  • Lack of energy during day time
  • Feeling fatigued while driving
  • Frequent visits to the bathroom
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Decrease in sex drive
  • Anxiety and depression

Life expectancy of untreated sleep apnea

People with OSA (either undiagnosed or left untreated on purpose) are:

  • More likely to suffer from heart attack (according to a 2001 research from American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine)
  • 3 times likely to die prematurely (based on an 18-year research from Wisconsin Sleep Cohort in 2008)
  • 2 to 3 times likely to suffer from stroke (2010 American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine)
  • 30% increased risk in heart attack (for people with sleep apnea for more than 5 years, Yale University)

Another alarming data comes from Wisconsin Sleep Cohort in 2008 shows death by heart disease is 42% more common in people with severe sleep apnea.

In 2005, The New England Journal of Medicine also said that people who suffer from sleep apnea are more likely to suffer heart attacks and die in their sleep. While those who don’t have sleep apnea die of heart attacks during the day.

Most effective treatment options

To subdue the fear of life-threatening conditions resulting from untreated sleep apnea, here is a list of the most effective treatment options currently available. 

Positive airway pressure devices

The most common and effective treatment for sleep apnea is positive airway pressure, and it comes in different forms. 

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) is the most common option. It involves the use of a breathing mask connected to a flexible tube and supplied with continuous air a little stronger than surrounding air, enough to keep the air passages of the patient open. 

CPAP and other breathing devices will not completely eliminate snoring. Rather, it reduces the frequency of respiratory episodes by keeping the air open and prevents it from collapsing during sleep. In other words, it prevents snoring when used and ensures a good night’s sleep. 

CPAP and other breathing devices require prescriptions. The air flow pressure setting is determined by the doctor based on the measurements they have taken from their diagnosis. 

The problem with CPAP and other breathing devices is that wearing a mask during sleep can be cumbersome and uncomfortable for some people. Also, the machine can make annoying noises for others in the bedroom. 

Oral appliances

For patients who don’t want to use CPAP machines, they can be prescribed with oral appliances such as mandibular advancement devices (MAD) or tongue retaining devices (TRD). MAD works by keeping the lower jaw a little forward to open up the air passage, while TRD works by keeping the tongue from sliding all the way back to the mouth during sleep and keeping the air passage open. sleep apnea when untreated

Neuro-stimulation and surgeries

For more severe cases, doctors may suggest neuro-stimulation therapies to aid the muscle around the mouth from collapsing during sleep. 

Surgeries are advised for cases where people suffer from OSA due to blockage in their airways. This often removes tissues, adenoids, tonsils, and more. 

Lifestyle change

Often for mild cases, doctors recommend complete lifestyle changes such as shedding extra weight, quitting alcohol, smoking, avoiding sleeping pills, and exercise. Since sleep apnea is related to excessive weight, stress, and unhealthy lifestyle, many people who lost weight from diet and exercise had their sleep apnea resolved. 

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