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Mar 20, 2012

Sleep Apnea Increases Cardiovascular Risk in Women

Breathing interruptions during sleep increases cardiovascular risk in both men and women but can be treated in simple ways.

Sleep apnea, a condition characterized by repeated interruptions of breathing during sleep, has long been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular mortality. Also known as sleep-disordered breathing, sleep apnea can cause sudden drops in blood oxygen levels, which can increase blood pressure and put strain on the heart. This stress can greatly increase risk for stroke and sudden death from a cardiac event. And despite the fact that sleep apnea affects roughly 2-3% of females in the U.S., most studies investigating sleep apnea and cardiovascular risk involve only men. This raises the question: Does sleep apnea increase cardiovascular risk in women, too?

A study published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine determined that women suffering from sleep apnea are also at increased risk for stroke, heart attack and death. This study conducted in Spain involved 116 female patients, all of whom were referred to sleep clinics in two Spanish hospitals between 1998 and 2007. After analysis, researchers found that women with untreated severe obstructive sleep apnea were three and a half times more likely to die from a heart-related condition compared with those receiving treatment. And those with mild to moderate sleep apnea who were untreated also had significantly greater risk of cardiovascular mortality than those treated for the condition.

Most importantly, this study shows that women face the same cardiovascular risks from sleep apnea as men do, highlighting the importance of addressing sleep apnea in women. It also shows that continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)—the most common treatment for sleep apnea—may help reduce cardiovascular risk associated with the condition. Combined, these findings help identify yet another important way that patients and providers can work together to address cardiovascular risk factors and promote heart health.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How does continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) work?

  • CPAP is often recommended for patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea. This device delivers air pressure through a mask worn during sleep to help prevent apnea and snoring. However, for patients with mild apnea, the condition can sometimes be treated with lifestyle changes, such as weight loss or quitting smoking.
  • Can sleep apnea cause other complications, aside from cardiovascular events?

  • Yes. Sleep apnea can cause a number of complications, such as daytime fatigue and complications with medications and surgery. However, treatments for sleep apnea, such as CPAP, may help minimize side effects and complications.

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