A woman snoring because of sleep apnea.

What Happens if Sleep Apnea is Left Untreated?

Sleep apnea is a common yet serious sleep disorder that causes repeated lapses in breathing during the night. These breathing disruptions prevent you from getting deep, restorative sleep and can lead to potentially serious health complications for sufferers of untreated sleep apnea.

Key Takeaways
  • Untreated sleep apnea significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and death. The repeated drops in oxygen and surges in blood pressure put major strain on the heart.
  • Sleep apnea can lead to impairments in memory, concentration, cognitive function and increased risk of dementia if left untreated. Lack of oxygen to the brain causes these issues.
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness caused by untreated sleep apnea makes driving and work accidents much more likely. It’s a major public safety issue.
  • Sleep apnea is highly treatable with CPAP and other therapies which can restore healthy sleep, improve oxygen levels, and reduce the associated health risks. Diagnosis and treatment are critical.

What is Sleep Apnea and What Causes It?

A man is sleeping on a couch.

Sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax during sleep, causing the airway to narrow or close completely. These collapsed airways lead to breathing pauses that can last 10 to 30 seconds or even longer.

The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which accounts for 84% of sleep apnea cases in adults. In OSA, the airway is blocked by soft tissue like the tongue, tonsils, or uvula. The less common central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe due to instability in the respiratory control center.

Regardless of type, sleep apnea causes oxygen levels to drop and excessive daytime sleepiness. But leaving it untreated can have far more serious repercussions for your health.

Risks of Leaving Sleep Apnea Untreated

The Cardiovascular Damage of Untreated Sleep Apnea

An image of a human heart in flames.

The repeated drops in oxygen coupled with surges in blood pressure each time you gasp for air puts tremendous strain on the cardiovascular system. Studies show that untreated OSA drastically increases your chance of developing high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure, irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), and stroke. One study found that severe sleep apnea increased stroke risk by 30%.[1]

The Brain Drain: Cognitive Decline and Impairment

The constant interruptions to sleep and oxygen deprivation seen with sleep apnea impair the brain’s ability to function normally. Studies link untreated OSA with memory loss, dementia, difficulty concentrating, slowed thinking and reactions, and decreased executive function.[2] Treating sleep apnea can stop or reverse declines in memory and cognition.

Sleep Apnea Promotes Diabetes Development

A woman holding a blood glucose meter in her hand.

Emerging research indicates sleep apnea promotes insulin resistance, often a precursor to diabetes. This is likely due to the effects of poor sleep quality and intermittent hypoxia on glucose metabolism. Studies indicate up to 83% of diabetic patients also suffer from OSA.[3] Treating sleep apnea may help improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control.

Increased Accident Risk from Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

The excessive daytime sleepiness caused by untreated sleep apnea significantly increases your chance of being involved in a car accident. According to studies, those with OSA have up to a 15-times higher risk of crashing their car.[4] Truck drivers with untreated OSA are particularly dangerous on the road, so early diagnosis of the condition and treatment can greatly reduce accident risk.

Difficulty sleeping and constant exhaustion frequently lead to depressive symptoms. Studies have shown that people with sleep apnea are 5 times more likely to suffer depression compared to the general public. Restoring healthy sleep patterns through CPAP or other sleep apnea treatment often alleviates depression.

Higher Risk of Death with Untreated Sleep Apnea

Perhaps most alarming are studies linking untreated severe sleep apnea to a 3-fold increased risk of death from any cause.[5] The specific causes of death most associated with sleep apnea are cardiovascular conditions like heart disease, stroke, and hypertension.

As you can see, leaving sleep apnea undiagnosed or untreated poses substantial risks to both your physical and mental health. The good news is sleep apnea is highly treatable.

Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea

The most common and effective treatment option is continuous positive airway pressure therapy, better known as CPAP. CPAP provides a constant flow of pressurized air through a face mask worn at night. This pressure keeps the airways open, allowing normal oxygenation and uninterrupted breathing. Studies confirm CPAP can help treat sleep apnea, improve oxygen levels, restore healthy sleep cycles, and reduce associated health risks.

Other treatments for sleep apnea include oral appliances like mandibular advancement devices, upper airway stimulation therapy, and for severe cases, corrective surgery such as removal of the adenoids and tonsils. All treatment options should be discussed with your doctor to determine the best approach based on your individual sleep apnea diagnosis.

Lifestyle changes like losing weight, limiting alcohol, quitting smoking, and learning proper sleep position can also help manage symptoms.
Surviving Sleep Apnea

The bottom line is sleep apnea has the potential to seriously jeopardize your health and quality of life if left unchecked. But seeking diagnosis and following doctor-recommended treatment provides immense benefits for both physical and mental health.

Listen to your body and your sleep partner for telltale signs of sleep apnea such as snoring, gasping for air, and excessive daytime fatigue. Then take steps to reclaim the healthy, energizing sleep vital for living your best life. Your heart and brain will thank you.

[1] Yaggi, H. Klar, J. Araujo, A. & Mohsenin, V. (2010). Obstructive sleep apnea as a risk factor for stroke and death. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2005 Nov 10;353(19):2034-41.

[2] Emamian F, Khazaie H, Tahmasian M, Leschziner GD, Morrell MJ, Hsiung GY, Rosenzweig I, Sepehry AA. The Association Between Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Alzheimer’s Disease: A Meta-Analysis Perspective. Front Aging Neurosci. 2016

[3] Huang T, Lin BM, Stampfer MJ, Tworoger SS, Hu FB, Redline S, et al. A population-based study of the bidirectional association between obstructive sleep apnea and Type 2 diabetes in women. Diabetes Care. 2018 Nov;41(11):2307-2314.

[4] Karimi M, Eder DN, Eskandari D, Zou D, Hedner JA, Grote L. Impaired vigilance and increased accident rate in public transport operators is associated with sleep disorders. Accid Anal Prev. 2013 Feb;51:208-14.

[5] Kendzerska T, Gershon AS, Hawker G, Leung RS, Tomlinson G. Obstructive sleep apnea and risk of cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality: a decade-long historical cohort study. PLoS Med. 2014;11(2):e1001599.

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As a long term Sleep Apnea sufferer, Sean has researched the topic extensively and tried several different therapies and lifestyle changes with varying degrees of success. His efforts now are focused on helping people get diagnosed early and begin treating their Sleep Apnea to avoid long-term health impacts.

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