At least 37 million adults snore on a regular basis, according to the National Sleep Foundation. But all snoring is not equal: Occasional snoring, due to congestion or a bad sleeping position, is a nuisance. Habitual snoring can disturb your sleep patterns and rob both you and your partner of needed rest.
Snoring to the extent that you stop breathingas in the case of obstructive sleep apneais a serious health threat that puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke.
How sleep apnea affects your heart
A 2007 study from Yale University found that sleep apnea increases the risk of heart attack or death by 30% over a four- to five-year period. As the upper airway collapses and oxygen is cut off from the lungs, the body triggers a fight-or-flight response, which decreases blood flow to the heart. Together these two actions raise blood pressure and, over time, wear out the heart, the authors concluded.
Karen Shaver, 62, a registered nurse in Valencia, Pa., experienced firsthand sleep apnea's strain on her heart.
"Before I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, I frequently had chest pains, usually at early evening while I napped," says Shaver. "One really scared me: Both arms were numb and it radiated up to my jaw. Being a nurse, I knew this was not a good sign, so I called 911."
The ambulance technicians gave Shaver oxygen and rushed her to the hospital. By then the strange feeling had gone away and doctors couldn't find anything wrong with her.
An overnight sleep study, however, showed that Shaver wasn't getting enough oxygen while she slept, and that she needed a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine to keep air flowing into her lungs. Since she began treatment, her chest pains have disappeared.
"It's like someone strangling you"
"When sleep apnea patients come here, there's a real sense of disbelief," says Ralph Downey III, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Loma Linda University in California.
"We tell them, 'Every minute you stop breathing for 30 seconds; that's like somebody coming in and strangling you.' That's the big wake-up callwhen they realize how low their oxygen level is."
Other health risks and complications
Sleep apnea also increases your risk for more immediate problems:
- It can lead to sleep deprivation, excessive daytime sleepiness, memory loss and concentration problems, and depression.
- It can aggravate other chronic conditions, such as chronic pain, asthma, and restless legs syndrome.
- Driving or operating machinery when you have untreated sleep apnea can be especially dangerous.
The severity of your snoring problem can be determined through an overnight sleep study, where machines measure the oxygen saturation of your red blood cells. (Anything below 90% saturation is cause for concern.) Depending on the results of these tests, you may be diagnosed with sleep apnea or a similar condition, upper airway resistance syndrome.
If you're unsure whether your or your loved one's symptoms warrant immediate attention, use these guidelines about when to see a doctor. The sooner sleep apnea is treated, the less likely you are to suffer health consequences later.