Sleep apnea can worsen heart disease, raise blood pressure if untreated, doctors warn

Doctors with the American Heart Association say obstructive sleep apnea may be silently increasing peoples’ risks of serious health consequences, particularly among those with heart disease or high blood pressure, as the condition is often “under-recognized and undertreated.”

In a scientific statement published Monday in the journal Circulation, experts said the sleeping disorder occurs in 40% to 80% of people with cardiovascular disease and 30% to 50% of those with high blood pressure — a percentage that’s even higher among those with treatment-resistant hypertension.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is also associated with heart rhythm disorders, stroke, worsening heart failure, increased risk of heart attack, Type 2 diabetes, Metabolic syndrome and worsening coronary artery disease.

Although there’s little evidence that shows screening forOSA changes clinical outcomes, experts say getting screened can help people begin treatment involving breathing machines, oral devices or diet changes that have been shown to improve quality of life.

“Improvements in home diagnostic tools and more research on ways to identify cardiovascular risk in people with OSA are needed,” said chair of the scientific statement writing group Dr. Yerem Yeghiazarians, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Still, the overall message is clear: we need to increase awareness about screening for and treating OSA, especially in patients with existing cardiovascular risk factors.”

People with the disorder experience a relaxing of their throat muscles while sleeping that blocks their airway, causing breathing to stop and start repeatedly. Common symptoms include snoring, fragmented sleep, daytime fatigue, morning headache, nighttime sweating and sore throat upon waking up.

OSA is different from central sleep apnea, “which occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing,” according to Mayo Clinic.

Generally, about 34% and 17% of middle-aged men and women, respectively, exhibit signs of OSA. But advances in screening are changing how doctors diagnose the disorder, according to the American Heart Association.

In the past, patients had to stay overnight at a sleep study center while attached to multiple cords and machines so doctors could monitor oxygen levels and breathing patterns. Now, there are several devices people can use at home and send back to their doctors for analysis.

Treatments have also diversified. The most common treatment requires the use of the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, but there are also oral appliances and dietary programs depending on the severity of the disorder.