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Untreated Sleep Apnea and Your Heart: What are the Risks?


Most people have heard that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can lead to problems like daytime drowsiness and fatigue and even cause irritability and negative changes in a person's mood. What some do not realize, however, is that untreated OSA can also have a number of dangerous consequences for heart health.

High Blood Pressure


According to Harvard's Healthy Sleep site, research has shown a strong link between chronic high blood pressure and untreated sleep apnea. This is because when an OSA patient's airway is blocked during sleep, the blood oxygen levels decrease. This decrease in oxygen in turn sets off a reaction in the nervous system which not only raises the heart rate but increases blood pressure as well. Approximately half of all sleep apnea patients also have blood pressure problems.

Heart Attacks


The Healthy Sleep site also reports that sleep apnea can lead to coronary artery disease and that this, in turn, increases the risk for heart attacks or problems with angina pectoris, the sometimes severe chest pain which is associated with the clogging of the coronary arteries. The damage to the heart from untreated OSA can be so severe that the Mayo Clinic notes it is even linked to an increased risk of sudden cardiac death.

Heart Failure


The Sleep Foundation site reports that heart failure can result when sleep apnea is left untreated. Why? When a person with sleep apnea stops breathing while asleep and their blood oxygen level drop, this causes a whole raft of changes to take place, from the chemical composition of the blood to its levels of carbon dioxide to changes in pressure in the heart. Over time, these chronic issues can lead to inflammation and the thickening/stiffening of the cardiac walls, all of which can compromise the heart's overall ability to function.



An arrhythmia occurs when the heart is not beating regularly and this problem can lead to an increased risk for serious heart problems like heart attacks. Everyday Health notes that when an OSA patient's oxygen levels dip below a certain point during sleep, in addition to causing an increase in blood pressure it can also cause the heart's rhythms to flutter.

Metabolic Disorders


Metabolic disorders — such as obesity and diabetes — have a complex relationship with sleep apnea, according to Johns Hopkins. It is important to note that while obesity is often the underlying cause for both cardiovascular disease and diabetes, it is not just a simple matter of cause and effect. Sleep apnea can also increase the risk for diabetes even in patients who are of normal weight. It is believed that part of this is due to the fact that low oxygen levels can cause spikes in blood sugar levels.


In short, sleep apnea is not just something that can leave a person feeling groggy or tired the next day. If left untreated, this serious sleep disorder can have a variety of negative consequences for the health of the heart.

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