Snoring and sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease–and the risk may be greater for women, according to new research.

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 breathing—–as in the case of obstructive sleep apnea–—is a serious health threat that puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke.

How sleep apnea affects your heart

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.

According to new research presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, this risk may be greater in women. In the new study, the walls of the heart were enlarged in people who snored or had sleep apnea. Compared to non-snorers, women who snored had bigger changes in their hearts than men.

Karen Shaver, a registered nurse in Valencia, Pennsylvania, 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.

"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 call—–when they realize how low their oxygen level is."

Other health risks and complications

Sleep apnea also increases your risk for more immediate problems:

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.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter