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.
- 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.
Table of Contents
What is Sleep Apnea and What Causes It?
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
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%.
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. Treating sleep apnea can stop or reverse declines in memory and cognition.
Sleep Apnea Promotes Diabetes Development
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. 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. Truck drivers with untreated OSA are particularly dangerous on the road, so early diagnosis of the condition and treatment can greatly reduce accident risk.
The Link Between Sleep Apnea and Depression
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. 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.
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.
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