A scary new report links this common sleep problem to cancer, especially in women—but how worried should you be?

By Maggie O'Neill
May 22, 2019

Women with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are more likely to develop cancer than men with the condition, according to a report published this week in the European Respiratory Journal.

OSA is the most common type of sleep apnea, and it causes a person’s breathing to stop and start throughout the night. People with sleep apnea often wake up abruptly, choking or gasping for air, and often have sore throats or dry mouths. OSA can also cause blood oxygen saturation levels to dip, and it’s been linked to a number of health problems—including morning headaches, high blood pressure, loud snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, depression, irritability, decreased libido, and nighttime sweating.

Now, researchers also believe there is a link between OSA and the development of cancer—especially in women. In the new study, an international team of researchers analyzed data on nearly 20,000 Europeans who’d been diagnosed with sleep apnea. About 5,800 of the patients studied were women, and about 14,000 were men.

During the study period, 2.8% of women—but only 1.7% of men—developed a serious cancer. Breast cancer was the most common cancer among these women.

Researchers took into consideration factors that can contribute to the development of cancer, including alcohol consumption, BMI, age, and smoking status. But even after controlling for those factors, they found that cancer was still more prevalent among female OSA patients than male OSA patients.

Study lead Athanasia Pataka, MD, said in a statement that her team found OSA might be an “indicator” of a future cancer diagnosis for women. However, more research is needed to confirm her team’s findings, Dr. Pataka explained.

“Our study did not explicitly explore the causes of different cancers, but cancer may differ between men and women because of factors such as how hormones affect tumor growth; how the different types of cancer that were more prevalent in men and women are affected by low blood oxygen levels; or how gender specific exposure to cigarette smoking may play a role,” Dr. Pataka said.

But before you worry, you should know that your risk of developing cancer if you have OSA is still low if you’re otherwise healthy. Of the nearly 20,000 patients analyzed for the study, only 388 were diagnosed with a serious cancer.

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“In this study the overall cancer prevalence was low at just 2%, therefore OSA patients should not be alarmed by this research,” Anita Simonds, MD, vice president of the European Respiratory Society, who was not involved with the new research, said in a statement. To help manage symptoms and stay healthy, she advises OSA patients to stay physically active, strive for an ideal body weight, limit alcohol use, and not smoke.

The study authors note that their research did not take into consideration other factors that may have affected their findings, including education level and physical activity. They emphasized that their results don’t prove that OSA causes an increased risk of cancer—only that there is an association between the two conditions.

The researchers plan to look next at cancer deaths among sleep-apnea patients with OSA, and at specific types of cancer. They also want to study whether treating sleep apnea helps improve cancer outcomes.

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